Tag Archives: 2016

366 UNDERGROUND: ROAD TO THE WELL (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Jon Cvack

FEATURING: Laurence Fuller, Micah Parker, Marshall R. Teague, Rosalie McIntire

PLOT: To avoid being implicated in a murder, a browbeaten white-collar drone and his drifter friend take a trip to dispose of the body, only to find obstacles and growing suspicions at every turn.

Still from Road to the Well (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Road to the Well is a beautifully shot, deliberately paced neo-noir thriller. It falls firmly in the tradition of wronged men trying to get out from under a dangerous situation, and while a couple scenes are tinged with oddness, in every important respect the film is not at all weird.

COMMENTS: The deck is already stacked for this movie by throwing out the word “noir.” Noir is a handy label for a subset of a subset: the kind of thriller where morals are muddled and the protagonist gets what’s coming to him just as surely as the villain. In its classic form, black-and-white photography is augmented with an ominous soundtrack, hard-bitten dialogue, and high-contrast shadows, all contributing to a sense that our hero is trapped in a universe from which escape seems nigh impossible.

If there’s a more loaded phrase than “noir” in the annals of film criticism, it would probably be “neo-noir.” All genres mature, and the dismissal of the strictures of the Production Code changed the nature of noir. No longer could you be sure that characters would invariably pay for their mistakes. Color allowed filmmakers to add new signifiers of good and evil to their palette. Motivations became more complex, the lines between good and bad muddier, and the very concept of redemption was sometimes rejected outright. Neo-noir acknowledged the themes of its progenitor, but expanded their boundaries, to the point where critic Robert Arnett would lament, “Any film featuring a detective or a crime qualifies.”

Having said all that, writer/director Jon Cvack’s debut film checks all the boxes for neo-noir. When desk jockey Frank (Fuller) finds himself implicated in the brutal murder of a woman he just met, it’s a wrong-man scenario suitable for Hitchcock, and his questionable decision to try and cover up the crime sits comfortably in the pantheon of noir-hero bad ideas. The interesting variant here is the presence of a friend, itinerant goof-off Jack (Parker), who readily agrees to lend a hand by facilitating the disposal of the woman’s body. The result is a road movie in which truth and comeuppance always seem to be just a couple car-lengths behind.

There’s a feel of thrillers of a more recent vintage, such as Blood Simple or A Simple Plan. But Cvack has none of the ‘ absurdist view of life; even the ridiculous sight of Frank and Jack trying to haul the dead girl up the stairs in a suitcase is played completely straight. All the troublesome elements are explored: cleaning up blood, covering up the smell, finding a suitable burial site… they’re all here. Most significantly, of course, are the people you meet along the way, who seem to sense guilt coming from a mile away.

Those interesting people turn out to be part of the problem with the movie. Consider, for example, the film’s most potent scene, a tense encounter with a retired military chaplain whose intimidation has the force of morality, anger, and a secret agenda behind it. He’s in the movie for somewhere around 10 minutes, but his presence and impact dwarf that of the two leads. Compare that with Frank, ostensibly our hero but in actuality a complete cipher. Although he makes choices that lead down the story’s dangerous path, they are invariably so passive that it becomes far too easy to blame others, especially Jack. Frank is utterly lacking in agency, which is apt for his ultimate fate, but problematic when assessing the momentous choice he is called upon to make. Even under these most extreme circumstances, Frank struggles to establish a presence for himself , and ends up being a vacuum in his own story.

It doesn’t help that there’s a lack of suspense about the nature of Frank’s predicament. We are given critical information at the start of the film, and while we do not understand its meaning out of context, it creates an expectation that hangs over the proceedings. When we finally get the piece of information that ties it all together, it qualifies less as a twist than as validation of common sense.

Road to the Well looks spectacular, and the filmmakers know it; cinematographer Tim Davis is the first name credited after Cvack. Also contributing is the evocative, pizzicato-laced score of composer Conor Jones, who adds layers of foreboding and menace to scenes which don’t really go anywhere on their own. The production quality of the movie far exceeds its sub-six-figure budget, and Cvack and his collaborators deserve a look from big-time producers looking for great moviemaking talent. But his calling card is strangely uninvolving, mirroring Frank’s journey: a beautiful, tension-filled trip to another dead-end job.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Cvack’s screenplay and direction is terrific in its ability to create mood, develop a sense of dread, and keep the performances and individual scenes consistently bizarre and uneasy. Even when all sense of logic sometimes abandons the film – certain sections feel disjointed or seem to be missing important pieces of information – the dedication to tone keeps the story from spinning out of control. …It works, and works well, again blending elements of the Coen Brothers with a Lynchian sense of off kilter madness.” — Larry Taylor, Monkeys Fighting Robots

LIST CANDIDATE: THE LOVE WITCH (2016)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Anna Biller

FEATURING: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddel

PLOT: A California witch who casts magic spells to seek out her true love finds that her lovers keep dying.

Still from The Love Witch (2016)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The world created in The Love Witch is so obsessively unique—a blend of romance novels, perverse witchcraft fantasies, feminist dialectic, and Technicolor melodramas—that perhaps it can only rightfully described as “weird.”

COMMENTS: One main stylistic feature of The Love Witch is the campy acting—Samantha Robinson’s Elaine speaks as if she’s always lost in an interior world of hearts and unicorns, making her sound insincere even when she’s at her most heartfelt. Other actors take an overly broad, TV-melodrama approach. This technique helps sustain the film’s sense of otherworldliness, but the other, and far more impressive, stylistic feature is the unreal, anachronistic, and impressively detailed mise-en-scene. A girly-girl café where the clientele all dress in pink and white with flowery hats—looking more like bridesmaids than ladies out for a spot of tea—while ethereal blondes play harps and sing medieval love hymns. The local burlesque house, in a lustful red-on-red color scheme, where dancers with feather boas never take it all off but ensorcell the drooling males nonetheless. The Renaissance Faire run by witches, where Elaine and her date “accidentally” end up wed in a mock pagan ceremony. The minutiae of Elaine’s witchcraft rituals, which at one point involves her honoring a corpse with her urine and a used tampon. Clever details and decorative ideas abound in nearly every scene. Reversing the seduction stereotype, Elaine uses a comically oversized brandy snifter to decrease her conquests’ inhibitions. Trish finds Elaine’s witchcraft altar full of bizarre potions and magickal totems, then walks into her adjoining bedroom to discover, oriented in exact mirror image position, a vanity set out with wig, perfume, and makeup.

The smart script is not simplistic in its satire; it prides itself on creating and holding contradictory views. Elaine and her friends toss out ideas about femininity that are sometimes laughably old-fashioned, but are sometimes still with us today, and trusts us to sort out which are which. Witchcraft is shown as harmless New Agey neo-paganism, no more or less ritually ridiculous than Christianity, but it’s also a source of implied abuse and exploitation, and a real threat to the community. And of course, the biggest contradiction of all is Elaine, a mixture of idealism and ruthless cunning, who expresses naïve ideas with a simple conviction that no one can effectively refute, simultaneously a victim and a serial victimizer.

Because the stylistic world Anna Biller creates in The Love Witch is cinematically familiar—with its widescreen compositions, brazen color schemes, cigarette smoking femme fatales and square-jawed cops—many are tempted to go hunting for movie references and homages. Indeed, I was reminded of The Birds (in Elaine’s rear-projection convertible ride up the California coast),  (the nude witchcraft rituals), The Trip (the psychedelic kaleidoscope lens when Elaine seduces the hippie professor) and TV’s “Dragnet” (in the sappy hard-boiled dialogue of the police squad room); others cite , Valley of the Dolls and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as inspirations. But none of the scenes Biller stages are outright allusions or in-jokes. She absorbs the period style—particularly its vivacious use of the full chromatic scale—-without simply referencing a checklist of favorite films; you’ll search in vain for nods to her specific influences. The Love Witch is a Sixties-era Technicolor B-movie that could have been, but in an alternate universe at a slight tangent to our own. The biggest compliment I can give Biller is to say that she does something for 1960s Technicolor spectacles similar to what did for silents and early talkies: she uses antiquated techniques to create a timeless, abstract setting that reflects her own personality. It’s gratifying to see her receive critical praise for this monumentally inventive and deceptively intelligent feminist statement dressed in Satanic sexploitation robes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The results are wildly over-the-top, in a ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’-meets-‘Dark Shadows’ kind of way, but Biller’s commitment to her vision is weirdly endearing.”–Sean P. Means, The Salt Lake Tribune (contemporaneous)

366 UNDERGROUND: MARVELOUS MANDY (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Chase Dudley

FEATURING: Paula Marcenaro Solinger, Jonathan Stottmann, Keith Nicholson

PLOT: A lonely single father falls in love with the author of his daughter’s favorite books, only to discover that she may not be all she seems.

Still from Marvelous Mandy (2016)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Marvelous Mandy is a straightforward Secret Sociopath thriller. Early misdirection helps create a certain confusion about the kind of movie we’re in for, but once the killing starts, it’s merely a race to each successive murder. Despite brief jaunts into the headspace of the two leads, there’s very little here that’s weird beyond the psychopathy of the killer.

COMMENTS: Before going any further, let’s be clear that this is absolutely loaded with SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. I’m giving away everything. With that in mind, let’s start with a fundamental question that Marvelous Mandy raises about horror-slasher-thriller movies.

Do you kill the kid?

The horror genre, perhaps more than any other, requires constant re-invention to maintain freshness in the eyes of its audience. How many ways can you find to yell “boo”? What happens when blood isn’t enough? Do you add in intestines? Where can you go after gore, other than more gore? Can you succeed entirely through twists and misdirections like M. Night Shyamalan, or do you pursue the nobody-gets-out-alive nihilism of an Eli Roth? Each movie must walk a delicate line, between restraint and wild abandon, between growing unease and sudden shock.

So, is killing the kid a step too far, signifying a plotter’s desperation, or possibly even an unsettled mind? Or is it a sign of the filmmaker’s purity of intent, preying on inherent fears, doing whatever is necessary to get a rise out of a jaded audience? The kind of movie you’re dealing with relies very heavily upon how the filmmaker has answered this question. (Speaking personally, I gave up on “CSI” after kids kept turning up on the slab too often, so my tolerance registers pretty low. But I understand the storytelling impulse.)

Marvelous Mandy attempts the difficult dance of being a little bit of both. Screenwriter (and Great Name Hall of Famer) Brentt Slabchuck introduces us to Harvey,  a dedicated dad and wannabe stand-up comic with no chops who is so desperate for love that he makes an embarrassing plea to a way-too-young barista in front of half of Louisville. He then pairs this lovable loser with Mandy, a woman who projects instability from the first frame, a children’s author mysteriously slumming as a bookstore clerk who spurs every man who crosses her path to make some very ill-informed decisions. The film tries to play with suspense by extending Harvey’s ignorance of his danger long past the point where we see his peril, but because we’ve seen Mandy in action (which is not her real name), the only mystery remaining is when he will finally catch up to us, and whether it will be in time to make a difference. Harvey turns out to be a lot sharper than other men, but the die is cast.

Although Marvelous Mandy is a semi-professional production, director Dudley has assembled a game and determined cast. As Harvey, Stottmann is convincing as a man who knows he’s in over his head but unbowed, while Solinger plays Mandy’s madness to the hilt. There are also nice turns in the supporting cast, including Ryley Nicole as Mandy’s delightfully pissy co-worker, and Kenna Hardin, natural as Harvey’s faithful daughter.  But the true standout is Keith Nicholson as a jovial, Stetson-wearing, tea-chugging private eye who does all the due diligence that nobody else manages to accomplish. Arriving in the third act to pursue Harvey’s spot-on suspicions about Mandy, he’s a breath of fresh air, wearing his enthusiasm and his character quirks loudly and proudly.

Dudley himself has some keen directorial instincts. He uses locations well, and he films Mandy’s violent attacks with skillful verisimilitude. Most impressive is a Hitchcockian tracking shot that begins with an attack and continues outside a house while the fight rages on, only catching up to the actors again at the end of the bloody assault.

Marvelous Mandy hints at certain ideas that might have taken the plot into unexplored territory. What would cause a children’s author’s mind to bisect into nurturing and violent halves? Would a man yearning for love still accept if it came with a dark side? What makes one man succumb to the lure of a femme fatale while another resists her deadly charms? Any of these might have lent shading or novelty to a subspecies of the genre—the Fatal Attraction trope—that threatens to become tired and boring. It never quite makes the turn on any of these, though, content instead to offer a woman with a messed-up brain and a drive for murder, and to turn her loose to do her thing.

Because, Mandy? She kills the kid. Turns out to be that kind of movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Marvelous Mandy is a darkly enjoyable movie that really doesn’t let on what it’s about until you’re already sucked in to then twist and turn into directions not thought possible…. add to that the film’s colour chart that for the most part feels a bit off and unreal, a directorial effort that stays away from spectacle to give the story space to breathe, and a great cast, and you’ve got yourself a really cool movie!”–Mike Haberfelner, [re] Search My Trash

 

366 UNDERGROUND: THE KINGDOM OF SHADOWS (2016)

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Joana Castro, Bruno Senune, Carina de Matos, Falvia Barabas, Daniel Pires

PLOT: Shuffling between the interior and exterior of a building (with guest appearances from some jagged cliffside rocks), various symbolic events occur because of the actions of various symbolic people.

Still from The Kingdom of Shadows (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This clutter of film scenes might be interpreted as “weird”, but I’m leery to describe the onscreen capering as a “movie”. Perhaps it’s just my staggering lack of interpretive skills, but when the characters are only somewhat explainable because you read the opening credits, I find the “movie” part a bit wanting. Not much is clear, and the lack of dialogue handily augments the altogether excessive incoherence of the narrative.

COMMENTS: I shall begin by saying that Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais may well have accomplished something impressive with their symbol-ridden film, The Kingdom of Shadows. Throughout the film there are little hiccups of inspired images that, in isolation, would make for compelling photographs to ponder. The lack of dialogue lends itself to a lack of explanation, but that allows for a mutuality of incomprehension across the globe. Unfortunately, it leaves the viewer grasping blindly for what it is the filmmakers are trying to say.

The story proper (I am guessing) begins weirdly enough with a pair of golden hands magically boiling up a pot of water. What ensues is a long-form mishmash of figurative images and sequences that vaguely intrigue, and certainly baffle, the viewer. A furtive young man appears during the bridging sequences, who may be acting as witness, along with us viewers. Inside a 19th-century (?) house, a clutch of people (indicated in the credits as “mother”, “daughter”, “uncle”, and so on) interact in strange ways with motives that are impossible to divine. An inspector comes along at some point (again, we know his vocation only from the credits) and twirls his mustache a lot. Eventually the gang inside the house takes up arms against the “daughter,” driving her outside. Interrupting the action is a pair of (usually naked) young people having quasi-dance-like interactions of joy, terror, and sundry other feelings.

As I’ve hinted in the preceding paragraphs, while there may be a lot going on in the movie, very little of it makes any sense. It would help if I knew what the directors were trying to say, and a commentary would no doubt be illuminating. That said, this presents a problem: any movie that cannot stand up to unsupervised viewing is of dubious merit. If there isn’t clarity, there needs to be a “vibe” of some sort, or at least an ambience. However, The Kingdom of Shadows is too scattered to have such a vibe, and any ambience is sabotaged by incoherent or careless touches. To support the latter, I give the example of a slow-moving “pursuit” scene through one of the house’s corridors. The turn-of-the-last-century feel is utterly destroyed by a very obvious smoke detector on the wall. Its square plastic frame and glowing electric light immediately crush whatever mood may have been built.

I have no doubt that all those involved poured their hearts and souls into making this movie, so it pains me a little to have to be so down on it. After the sturm und drang of various troubled moans from the young observer, after the not-quite balletic artiness of the “Adam and Eve” vignettes, and after the cranked up symbolism, we’re still left with something that’s a bit amateurish and more than a bit boring. If there were an unhealthy halfway point between How the Sky Will Melt and Begotten, this movie hits it, and hits it hard. ‘s piece—while perhaps incomprehensible—has that dream-like “thing” required for such an exercise in post-narrative film. That “thing” is never found by the directors of The Kingdom of Shadows, which is more the pity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a film that does never try to make perfect sense, instead using impressive, often tableau-like imagery to get its point across… a film like this might not be for everybody, but those with open minds are up for a fascinating journey…”–Mike Haberfelner, [re]Search My Trash (contemoraneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: WE ARE THE FLESH (2016)

Tenemos la Carne

DIRECTED BY: Emiliano Rocha Minter

FEATURING: Noé Hernández, María Evoli, Diego Gamaliel

PLOT: A teenage brother and sister find their way to the lair of a hermit, who seduces them into acting out increasingly depraved, increasingly hallucinatory scenarios.

Still from We Are the Flesh (2016)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The overall project may seem to lack much purpose, but it’s intense and uncompromising—and weird—enough to merit a look.

COMMENTS: The new year is only a few weeks old, and already we have a contender for Weirdest Movie of 2017. A demonic hermit uses two disciples—one reluctant, one willing—to transform his habitat into a womblike space where he enacts bizarre, perverse fantasies eventually incorporating sadism, rape, orgies, murder, cannibalism, and more. As the ringmaster in this cavalcade of perversions, Noé Hernández is believably crazy. He looks like he stinks, and rants like a guy you’d cross the street to avoid meeting. He projects a very specific form of charisma: like a Mexican Manson, he has a gravity capable of capturing those irretrievably lost to themselves in his orbit. “People shy from certain thoughts. Their lives are a continuous distraction from their own perversion,” the wild-eyed messiah preaches to an improbably intrigued teenage girl, while flapping his arms like a bird in the void. “Solitude drags you, forces you to come face to face with your darkest fantasies. And when nothing happens, you stop being afraid of your most grotesque thoughts.”

With siblings and a perverted Svengali, the story goes exactly where you think it will; but, incest is only the beginning. Once they indulge that taboo, all the walls come crashing down—and the plot immediately hops onto whatever crazy train it can catch, going to places you can’t possibly predict. In fact, after the strangely beautiful incest montage, shot in psychedelic thermal imaging and scored to a romantic Spanish ballad, there can hardly be said to be a plot at all, only a series of deranged, escalating provocations. (One presumes that in Catholic Mexico, the movie’s blasphemous parody of Christ—both the resurrection and the Eucharist—is the most shocking element). On a literal level, you might try to explain it all as the result of an all-purpose drug the hermit keeps in an eyedropper, which is capable of producing intoxication, serving as an antidote to his own homebrewed poisons, and possibly preserving the brains of those he’s lobotomized. More likely, the hermit simply personifies  perverse desire, and the movie is a representation of the nightmare of a narcissistic world of pure desire without taboos or boundaries. The tumbling of moral walls allows the irrational to flood in.

As shock cinema goes, Flesh displays far more artistry than most. The lighting is extraordinary—purple-lit faces in front of glowing yellow portals that serve to block, rather than lead to, the opaque outside world. These touches elevate the minimalist set into a true dream space. The music is also well-deployed, with horror-standard rumblings alternating with ironically beautiful ballads and a Bach concerto. Flesh shows the imagination of , mixed with the despairing nihilism of , in a scenario reminiscent of Salo.

As for misgivings: I wonder if Flesh has enough substance to compensate us for its unpleasantness. Late in the film, it takes a stab at social relevance, with a subversive recital of the Mexican national anthem and a paradigm-shifting final scene. But these digressions come off as afterthoughts to a movie whose main interest is to indulge its own most grotesque thoughts. And there, I wonder if the film doesn’t pull its own perverse punch. A Clockwork Orange‘s Alex was deeply chilling because he made you feel the appeal and charm of evil; the hermit here does not. He’s too clearly insane, too cartoonish in his fleshy villainy. The ominous music and horror movie atmosphere also instruct you to be repulsed rather than aroused. Despite the madman’s advice, this movie does want you to be afraid of its most grotesque thoughts. But fans of extremity cinema will—pardon the pun—eat it up.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“We Are The Flesh is a bizarrely arresting treat from an exciting new talent. It’s also just about the strangest film you’ll see this year.”–Michael Coldwell, Starburst (contemporaneous)