Tag Archives: 2013

244. WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? (2013)

Jigoku de naze warui

“We’re in reality, and they’re in the fantastic. Reality is going to lose!”–Ikegami, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hiroki Hasegawa, Fumi Nikaidou, Jun Kunimura, , Gen Hoshiro, , Tomochika

PLOT: Director Hirata leads a group of anarchic filmmakers who dub themselves “the Fuck Bombers”; he wants to make one great movie in his life, or die trying. Meanwhile, the Muto clan is at war with a rival bunch of yazkuza, and Boss Muto’s daughter, Mitsuko, is starting her career as a child actress with a popular toothpaste commercial. Ten years later these two plotlines collide when, through a string of coincidences, Boss Muto hires Hirata to film his raid on rival Ikegami’s headquarters, in hopes that the footage will be used in a movie that will make Mitsuko a star.

Still from Why Don't You Play in Hell? (2013)

BACKGROUND:

  • Shion Sono belonged to an amateur filmmaking group in high school and drew on those experiences for writing the script. (Future director was also a member of the group). The character of Hirata is based on an acquaintance, however, not on Sono himself. (Sono relates that he was cast in the “Bruce Lee” role in their amateur productions).
  • Sono wrote the script about fifteen years before it was produced.
  • Many viewers incorrectly assume that the yellow tracksuit Tak Sagaguchi wears is a reference to ‘s outfit in Kill Bill. In fact, both and Sono are referencing Bruce Lee’s costume from Game of Death. Sono was so irritated by the constant misidentification that he included an explicit reference to it in his next feature, Tokyo Tribe (2014).
  • Why Don’t You Play in Hell? was the winner of this site’s 6th Readers’ Choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s a close call between the scene of a darling little Mitsuko singing a toothpaste commercial jingle while standing ankle deep in a pool of blood in her living room, or the rainbow-colored jets of blood that stream from yakuza hearts punctured by adult Mitsuko’s katana as she stabs her way through a field of flowers. Take your pick.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Singing in the blood, vomiting on a prayer, rainbow arterial spray

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Up until the final thirty minutes, Hell appears only mildly unusual; the characters and situations are exaggerated, but besides one bloody hallucinatory memory and a broken-bottle French kiss, not too much happens that you couldn’t see in a Japanese version of Get Shorty. When it comes time for the movie-within-a-movie to roll, things change: decapitated heads fly about like bats and stylish machismo flows as freely as blood as logic flees the scene in abject terror.


U.S. release trailer for Why Don’t You Play in Hell?

COMMENTS: Ambitious high-school director Hirata addresses the Continue reading 244. WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? (2013)

READER RECOMMENDATION: STOCKHOLM (2013)

Reader review by Careina Marcos

DIRECTED BY: Rodrigo Sorogoyen

FEATURING: Javier Pereira, Aura Garrido

PLOT:  A guy tries to get a girl to notice him at a party but she refuses, and the story continues in a long and interesting conversations until he manages to gain her attention.

Still from Stockholm (2013)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Not your typical romance film. It’s not the usual guy-gets-the-girl or they-had-a-happy-ending kind of movie.  Its strangeness, mysteriousness, and persuasiveness will surprise you, frighten you, crush you, then kill you.

COMMENTS: The movie starts with a usual conversation between guys at a night club. Javier Pereira  approaches and declares to Aura Garrido that he is in love with her. She initially rejects him, but he persists, following her and engaging in a continuous conversation about life and love around the late-night streets of Madrid. They end up walking together until they reach Pereira’s apartment. They have a cat-and-mouse moment, with Garrido testing him about his real motives as he expertly dresses up his desire for sex. She had doubts, though they are both disengaged from their emotions, playing roles. The next morning, after Pereira gets what he desired, they have some troubling chat but end up in his building’s rooftop to have a coffee in the cold light of day. It’s also their first time to find out who they really are and that they’re seeking entirely different things. They’ve had a lot of talks, but neither has been telling the truth.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Director Rodrigo Sorogoyen (known for his TV work in Spain) deconstructs the behavior that leads to one-night stands in this warped, genre-bending sort-of romance… a strong start in cinema for Sorogoyen, and a fine twist on the walk-and-talk romance, but its final act is too writer-y to fit in among what was previously established as a realism-minded drama.”–Taylor Sinople, The Focus Pull (festival screening)

366 UNDERGROUND: DESTINATION PLANET NEGRO (2013)

Destination: Planet Negro!

DIRECTED BY: Kevin Willmott

FEATURING: Kevin Willmott, Tosin Morohunfola, Danielle Cooper, Trai Byers

PLOT: In order to flee early-20th century racism and find a new home for African Americans, physicist Warrington Avery and a crack squad of Black adventurers attempt a trip to Mars, only to have their rocket ship sucked through a worm hole which transports them into the jarring reality of modern-day America.

Still from Destination Planet Negro (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The “time-traveling fish-out-of-water” story is a cinematic trope with a long pedigree. That these time-travelers are Black luminaries from the 1930s is something a novelty, but Destination: Planet Negro plays by the rules in an expected, but not unpleasant, manner.

COMMENTS: Having another socially conscientious movie be next on my to-do list could be viewed as a punishment for me by those who may have taken issue with my diatribe about Arabian Nights. However, my dislike of that movie did not stem from its progressive agenda, but from its wanting for anything remotely approaching “entertainment.” It was no small relief that Kevin Willmott’s satirical piece, Destination: Planet Negro (DPN) proved to be quite amusing and watchable, in addition to proffering some salient observations about modern and historical race issues.

My lingering frustration put aside, let me dive into the movie at hand. DPN starts right off with a sense of place: crisp black and white film sets the tone, and after opening-credits over a cosmic montage, we jump to an assemblage of Black luminaries in 1939. These top African-Americans are gathered to discuss, as one describes it, “the Negro problem.” Not finding the United States welcoming, nor being keen on moving to Africa (too much poverty), Europe (risk of exotification), or the U.S.S.R. (these gents are no commies), Dr. Warrington Avery (Kevin Willmott) informs the august crowd that he has a plan to colonize the Red Planet for the Black Man. The skeptics are assuaged by none other than George Washington Carver. However, some of the attendees inform the local police, so Dr. Avery, his astronomer daughter Beneatha (Danielle Cooper), speed-demon Captain “Race” Johnson (Tosin Morohunfola), and a clumsy robot with a cracker personality are forced to take the trip on the fly.

At about the half-hour mark, the movie changes from black and white to color, as the space adventurers crash-land on a far off planet. The joke’s on them, though: it’s the same planet and same country, just 75 years later. And so DPN moves on from historical commentary to  contemporary commentary. A run-in with Hispanic laborers in the back of a van suggests to them that slavery exists here. Observing a young black man making a purchase at a convenience store convinces them he’s a slave: no eye contact, no words from the black man to the white cashier. DPN continues in this vein, ably expounding on the many similarities of treatment, though occasionally veering into the realm of the silly. In particular, the montage involving “Race” Johnson learning how to “walk like a Black guy” shouldn’t have been included, much less gone on for as long as it did.

All told, DPN is a fun diversion for those seeking some observations about race relations. It didn’t surprise me upon researching DPN that Kevin Willmott was the driving force behind 2004’s speculative “documentary” C.S.A.: the Confederate States of America. There, too, he used the powers of humor and satire to make his point, all the while maintaining an appreciably light touch. Willmott seems aware that hitting people over the head with a blunt cinematic object can be counter-productive when making one’s point. While some more pruning could have helped it better maintain its momentum (after the crash-landing scene, the movie itself nearly crashes), that criticism could be laid against most movies. In brief: not weird, but not bad.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…highly recommended, provided you’re in the mood for a campy, low-budget sci-fi whose cheesy special effects are more than offset by a profusion of insightful social statements.”–Kam Williams, Baret News Network (contemporaneous)

READER RECOMMENDATION: MOTIVATIONAL GROWTH (2013)

Reader Recommendation by Bryan Pike

DIRECTED BY: Don Thacker

FEATURING: Adrian DiGiovanni, , Danielle Doetsch, Pete Giovagnoli, Ken Brown

PLOT: Ian Folivor, a depressed and reclusive 30-something, finds himself taking advice from a fungal growth in his bathroom after a failed suicide attempt.

Still from Motivational Growth (2014)

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The film’s lead impossibly suspended horizontally while sucking greedily from a wall-mounted fungal teat, followed closely by the animatronic mold itself.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: That the protagonist communicates with a talking fungus is strange enough to warrant potential inclusion, but for a movie limited to the confines of an apartment this film takes on a truly epic and bizarre scope, with spore-induced hallucinations involving infomercials and B-grade science fiction TV shows, demonic TV repairmen, a bathroom murder and dismemberment, a sweet romantic sub-plot and by the film’s close, genuine questions as to what of the preceding 104 mins was real or imagined.

COMMENTS: “The Mold knows, Jack, The Mold knows…”

Normally when considering the first feature of an independent film director one makes allowances for certain technical shortcomings: out of focus shots, poor film stock, a bump in a dolly shot or two, things obvious to the seasoned film viewer but which are ignored in good faith and focus given to the storytelling or performances. There is no such necessity in this film, there are no such flaws to note. In terms of technical craft alone this is easily the most impressive debut I’ve seen from any feature director; the rich and developed performances and storytelling are equally impressive.

The aforementioned fungal teat sequence, the circuitous, overhead crane shots of Ian on his filthy couch, and even a quasi-bullet time shot of the lead falling in the bathroom; are all ambitious, complex shots which are executed effortlessly. The grimy, festering detritus of Ian’s depression made manifest in the scattered garbage filling his apartment is an impressive feat of art direction.

I’d classify it as an absurdist, theatrical, sitcom take on Enter the Void, at least in the sense of a post-death hallucinatory journey (or is it?). It features a shut-in who attempts suicide and is then given a new lease on life by an enormous fungus growing in his bathroom. “The Mold”, an animatronic puppet voiced by Jeffrey Combs, guides our protagonist back to a clean, regular life—if sucking from wall-mounted fungal teats, altercations with demonic TV repairmen, and dream sequences involving infomercials can be considered “regular”.

The puppet for “The Mold” is a refreshing break from the digital in our overly-CGI’ed times, reminiscent of the impressive practical effects from 80’s films like The Thing or The Howling. Jeffrey Comb’s assured, mellifluous voice is the perfect contrast to the wired, intense performance of Adrian Giovanni. The 8-bit music, while fitting the period (early 90’s) and the aesthetic of Thacker’s Imagos production company, is occasionally jarring compared to the action on screen. Although varied and amusing, the TV infomercials playing on Ian’s unit, “Kent” are perhaps the weakest aspect of the film; this satire of vapid and bombastic TV programming has been done better elsewhere, notably Fight Club, or, let’s be honest, the better moments of SNL. To Thacker’s credit it would be difficult at this stage to bring something fresh and inventive to such satire, given the sheer glut of both modern television programs and subsequent parodies.

Ian also merges with these TV programs in some kind of day dream or hallucination, with television’s Kent accusing Ian of betrayal, saying that he “looked after him” long before (the Mold?) did. In the overall context of the film it remains unclear whether Kent is a separate character and rival to the Mold for Ian’s allegiance. Is Kent—who often uses the same language as The Mold—merely an extension of it? The ambiguity employed is merely distracting, rather than serving as an engaging mystery within the film.

The only other complaint one could make of the film are that the level of technical innovation and impressive camera feats drop off towards the end (though this is more a reflection of the story taking prominence over on-screen auteur flourishes at that stage), and that the ambiguous ending leaves one feeling dissatisfied. At various points during the film it is hinted that Ian is dead (or at the very least that “someone” has died) and that our film experience is a hallucinatory afterlife trip inside Ian’s head. But this is arguably the least satisfying outcome or final premise for the film. Isn’t the buildup towards Ian’s “improvement” and the possibilities this direction takes us in (i.e. what are the Mold’s designs for Ian within the larger world outside the apartment?) more intriguing than “oh, Ian’s dead and this is him working things out in the afterlife as his corpse is consumed by mold”? I may have simply been hoping for a different film based on the initial premise than what transpired.

Ultimately, despite these minor misgivings, the film remains an impressive and vastly entertaining debut feature that rewards subsequent viewings for more details as to the nature of what we’ve witnessed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…you can categorize Motivational Growth under “The Weird,” and I mean that as a true compliment.”–Matt Donato, We Got This Covered (contmeporaneous)

CAPSULE: WHITE RABBIT (2013)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Tim McCann

FEATURING: Nick Krause, Britt Robertson, Sam Trammell

PLOT: Things start to go rapidly downhill for Harlon, an emotionally abused boy, after his father makes him kill an injured white rabbit; years later he hears the voices of characters from his favorite comic strip urging him to stand up for himself.

Still from White Rabbit (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If “angsty” meant “weird”, this would have been the weirdest movie I have ever seen. However, it doesn’t, and this wasn’t. White Rabbit‘s occasional dips into pseudo-schizophrenic hallucinations are very few and far between, and for better or worse the movie burns up its first two-thirds blandly exposing just how horrible life can be when you’re stuck in a rural backwoods with nothing to do but shoot, drink, and beat on anyone who is remotely different.

COMMENTS: There is a problem with a twist-based movie when by the end one just can’t care less. While the ambiguity provided a bit of relief, a movie hingeing on a final minute that misfires is nothing short of disappointing. There are a number of things that Tim McCann is trying to achieve with White Rabbit; however, they’ve already been accomplished in other, superior, movies. Rural life is terrible? Check out Gummo. Society overlooks the mentally ill? Check out Clean, Shaven. Angst is a sure-fire path to outburst? Check out Angst. Whatever you do, don’t check out White Rabbit.

McCann’s cautionary (?) tale of abuse and detachment begins at the end, with the goth-y protagonist’s back-story fleshed out confessional-style. Young Harlon’s home life is terrible: his father Darrell is a volatile drunk, his brother teases him mercilessly, and his mother’s best efforts to make things “okay” are welcome but insufficient. At a tender age, his father buys him a gun and goes hunting with him. Cue the film’s metaphor. In the middle of the woods, Harlon sees a white rabbit, which his father immediately orders him to dispatch. The boy misses, and they pursue the animal until they find it stuck in a briar. Taunted by his father, Harlon shoots the now-defenseless rabbit. Dead white bunny = innocence lost.

Growing up in Rural, USA, the boy has one friend, Steve, who is even more abused than he. Otherwise alone, Harlon takes comfort in a comic book series called the Scarlet Widow. Its characters begin talking to him, using words of malevolent encouragement. Then there’s Harlon’s father. As nasty as the father generally is, he is the only fleshed-out character. Though “charming” would be far too strong a word to describe him even in his better moments, Darrell stands as the movies most relatable figure. Improbably, his disappointment and ridicule are interrupted by intermittent bursts of kindness and understanding. In one scene, having just gotten high on crack, Darrell takes his son to a nearby strip club after the boy’s had a rough day. Darrell’s own life obviously has been pretty dismal, but he has a kind of flippant charisma that made him the only character worth watching.

Anyhow, things get nasty at an accelerating rate. Steve suffers a nebulous fate after a dog-adoption goes awry. The depressive-pixie-dream-girl whom Harlon fancies cleans up her act and gets together with the now reformed jock that Harlon (rightly) abhors. Unfortunately, the best twist of the movie never happens. There’s a point where everyone around him has reformed and become a decent person; had McCann explored the greater isolation Harlon would have experienced after this, things might have traveled down an interesting psychological path. As it goes, White Rabbit ducks out of this route almost before it begins, ending on a “Hey, maybe there’s some redemption going on here. Or not. Or maybe.” Or whatever.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the voices he soon hears in his head are as muddled and underdeveloped as the rest of the film, which falls back on the easiest answers available to explain its protagonist’s fractured psyche.”–Nick Schrager, Film Journal International (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: HARD TO BE A GOD (2013)

Trudno byt bogom

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Leonid Yarmolnik, Yevgeni Gerchakov, Aleksandr Chutko

PLOT: In Earth’s future, scientists are sent to the planet of Arkanar – a world with a society similar to Earth’s Middle Ages. While their directive is to observe and have only minimal involvement, one scientist wearies of the unremitting squalor and violence and decides to try to change things.

Still from Hard to Be a God (2013)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Watching Hard to Be a God, the phrase “unremitting nightmare” springs to mind. While this phrase is often both hyperbolic and over-used, here it works nicely as a description. The gray and black images of cramped, filth-strewn hovels and hallways are unceasing, and the accompanying soundtrack of spits, snorts, sniffs, coughs, and groans lead to a very weird and very unpleasant movie.

COMMENTS: With his final movie, Soviet /Russian director Aleksei German grabs the viewer by the throat and shoves him face-first into the putridness of a world that is best left eight centuries in the past. Hard to Be a God follows in the same stylistic vein as his prior film, 1998’s Khrustalyov, My Car! There is no color, just sickly hues of stained white and gray; there is ambient confusion in every scene, as background events play out, sometimes passing right by the camera; and the story is so loosely explained that without the anchoring of the handful of voice-overs, all sense of narrative flow would be lost. This final point is worth noting, as the crippled sense of development in the story neatly conveys the development that occurs (or, doesn’t occur) on this ghastly planet.

A narrator immediately establishes that “this is not earth, but another planet.” He goes on to explain that a Renaissance had nearly happened on this planet, but was nipped in the bud by reactionary thugs of both the royalist and religious persuasion. As a consequence, a handful of scientists (from the planet Earth) are semi-abandoned in this mud and filth-stained pit of humanity. All the scientists are men of stature within the society they are observing—the main character, Don Rumata, is even purported to be a descendant of one of the old pagan gods—but with the burning of the universities and hanging of the men of learning, they are doomed to watch as the civilization stagnates and stagnates.

Before watching this, I had never so enjoyed the “color” of white. The grit and muck that covers everything (faces, hands, clothes, walls, floors… everything) is pervasive. Every time Don Rumata uses his lily-white handkerchief, or drops it on the ground as a gift to a passing peasant, one of the few strands of beauty the movie contained disappears. The world’s rains, described by the narrator as “short and sticky”, are just that. Everything is wet in a dirty, dirty way. Through the haze of dirt and mist, I was reminded of ; I struggle now to understand how he made nature seem at all beautiful. Even the traces of cultural progress in Hard to be a God are obscured by the rampant sludge; we see an occasional artisinal weapon, or perhaps a painting of great beauty, that has been left to absorb humanity’s filth.

By now I’m sure you can guess that I’ve exhausted my thesaurus of terms for “dirty”. The movie suggests the only hope this world has is if the observers becomes more proactive. Toward the end, Don Rumato snaps—quietly, as he does everything—and before an obliquely conveyed rampage, mutters to no one in particular, “God, if you exist, stop me.” What results remains unclear, but perhaps it is hopeful; at the very least it’s as hopeful a conclusion as one could expect on the planet of Arkanar. As Rumato confesses to one of the scientists before they leave him behind, “If you write about me, and you’ll probably have to, write that it’s hard to be a god.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It is grotesque and deranged and Hieronymus Bosch-like, and damn if it isn’t a bona fide vision—but of what, exactly?”–Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Onion A.V. Club (contemporaneous)