Tag Archives: 2016

CAPSULE: SAMURAI RAUNI REPOSAARELAINEN (2016)

Weirdest!

AKA Samurai Rauni

DIRECTED BY: Mika Rättö

FEATURING: Mika Rättö, Reetta Turtiainen

PLOT: Rauni, a homicidal Finnish samurai, searches for the mysterious “Shame Tear,” who has placed a price on his head.

Still from Samurai Rauni Reposaarelainen (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This deliberate cult item, with Nordic ninjas and Scandinavian samurai, plays like a low-grade acid trip and raises its artistic sights in the mystical and mystifying final act, but ultimately it’s more Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. than El Topo.

COMMENTS: As much a cross between and  as it is between Finnish and Japanese culture, Samurai Rauni Reposaarelainen is a messy would-be cult item that may be too off-putting in its mishmash of tones and its despicable anti-hero for all but the most adventurous audiences. Rauni the Finnish samurai is a scraggly, drunken rapist with bad teeth, clad in a fisherman’s wool sweater and a “Popeye the Sailor” cap. He’s a dick who terrorizes the locals of Meri-Pori, a frozen marsh overlooked by a coal plant and wind turbines, during his drunken rampages, but he’s also a magical fighter who decapitates ninja assassins with a blade of grass. This makes him a problem with no easy solution; thus, a mysterious enemy puts a price on his head.

The inhabitants of the movie’s insular Nipponophilic world randomly wear white pancake makeup like geishas or noh actors, and/or have bizarre accoutrements like a wire-frame headdress draped with a strand of pearls, suggesting the costume designer was either a Finnish thrift store genius or a deranged drunk the crew found wandering in a junkyard. One character is spray-painted gold. The costumes and sets have a punkish, esuqe feel to them, although the exceptional cinematography belies that dime store ambiance.

Most of the movie is an extended quest that’s shaggier than Rauni’s beard, as the samurai tracks down various suspects and former masters and slaughters them. Each scene exists in its own little world, rather than serving the whole. Most impressive is a well-choreographed battle at a buffet table (with a servant who keeps filling up Rauni’s glass as he fights); it alternates between slow and fast motion and, although mock epic in intent, still suggests how clever camerawork and planning can create an thrilling action sequence on a minimal budget. Other sequences drag, like the training montage, or seem pointlessly out-of-place even in this rambling movie, like Rauni dancing on stage at a post-wedding rave. It ends with a true Surrealist flourish, by turns horrific and poignant, as Rauni loses the power of speech and, prompted by nonverbal goblins in a canoe, dives through a door in a lake into an underwater world to finally learn the truth about the price on his head.

Though likely intended as a comedy, most of the humor is either bone dry, or perhaps so inherently Finnish that I couldn’t catch it (when Rauni challenges one ex-master to a series of contests that include a game of “Risk,” it’s about the closest thing to a conventional joke you’ll find). The movie is so odd and personal that it’s almost impossible to predict who will like it and who will hate it, a feature that the marketing campaign cleverly plays up by putting a selection of critics quotes on the back of the Blu-ray that range all the way from one star to a perfect score, and every rating in between. Obviously, if you’re one of those readers who prefers movies marked to ones marked , then this is for you. It will be interesting to see if Mika Rättö will grow as a director—he seems like he could benefit from a more disciplined structure—or whether he’s the kind of auteur who only had one strange movie in him dying to get out.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a batshit-weird work of art with a surprising amount of heart.”–Andrew Todd, birth. movies. death (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by director , who called it ” one of the most satisfyingly odd movies that has come out recently.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: KALEIDOSCOPE (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Rupert Jones

FEATURING: , Sinead Matthews, Anne Reid

PLOT: A lonely ex-con tries to muddle through life and find romance, but it seems his mother is determined to reassert her domination over him.

Still from Kaleidoscope (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTKaleidoscope toys around with perception and time in a… kaleidoscopic kind of way, but everything gets wrapped up pretty nicely (a little too nicely for the likes of us). It must be said, though, that the protagonist’s mother cranks up the creepy factor to within throwing distance of serious consideration.

COMMENTS: Maintaining a constant sense of unease while being both sweet and unsettling is a tough balancing act for a movie, and such films often pass by unnoticed. And as there are just so many movies to watch, even if your job is to watch them, it can be hard both to find the time to watch the right movies and to find the right movies to fill your time. Kaleidoscope is as understated as its melancholy protagonist, and it’s easy to miss: it’s foreign, low budget, and its biggest star is a niche (albeit incredibly talented) character actor. I would never have watched this if I weren’t a “366” reviewer; having done so, I suspect it will be right up the alley of many “366” followers.

Carl (Toby Jones) is a lonely fellow living quietly in a clapped-out council estate. Tonight, though, is special, as he’s arranged a date with an outgoing young woman named Abby (Sinead Matthews), making the rendezvous at the appropriately named bar “Lust.” Returning to his flat afterwards, they chat, share drinks (he’s a teetotaler, though), and even dance together (that’s right: you get to see Toby Jones dancing to Dubstep in a shirt as loud as the music). Then things start to go badly: Carl gets an unwanted phone message from his mother, his drink gets spiked, and Abby may only have gone on the date in order to case the joint. The next morning, Carl awakens to find himself on his couch not remembering much. Details slowly coalesce, suggesting he may have murdered—again. Panicking, the last thing he needs is a surprise visit from his hated mother (Anne Reid). Of course, she arrives.

The ickiness of Carl’s mother is hard to overstate. Anne Reid’s performance is about as knockout as a low-key psychodrama will allow. She’s excessively sweet (she cooks for her son, cleans his apartment, and even offers him a £90,000 check by way of apology… for something) while being surreptitiously domineering (Carl is obliged at one point to bandage her injured leg after cleaning it up). And she has a history of—probably—taking advantage of him sexually. This leaves the viewer finding her by turns unpleasant and staggeringly creepy. There was one scene in particular that started out merely as uncomfortable before going so far as to force me to shout at the television, “Oh God, No!” (That, dear reader, is quite an achievement considering the dozens of disturbing movies I’ve watched over the years.)

While other reviewers have had the recent misfortune of reviewing forgotten movies that deserve that fate, I’ve typically lucked out with watching ones that merely fell below the radar and stuck there. Kaleidoscope is nothing earth shattering, but it doesn’t need to be. In the same “Mother-as-Monster” genre as ‘s Psycho, it tells the tale of a child being broken by the very person who should have been his protector. As his hallucinated dead father assures him (“I don’t blame you. She filled your mind with poison”), Carl is hardly responsible for the collapse of his life. Kaleidoscope, with its subdued shatter-view, nicely toys with the audience in a far more congenial way than Carl’s mother toyed with him.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The eponymous optical instrument gets a full symbolic workout in ‘Kaleidoscope,’ an intricately crafted, infinitely wrongfooting psychological thriller in which conflicting realities coalesce, diverge and regroup like so many shifting formations of jewel-colored glass.”–Guy Lodge, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ZEN DOG (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Rick Darge

FEATURING: , Adam Hershman, Celia Diane

PLOT: A young virtual reality entrepreneur explores strange herbs and lucid dreaming in an attempt to shake himself out of his rut.

Still from Zen Dog (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Zen Dog is an earnest, low budget curiosity that dreams big, but doesn’t dial up the weird as much as it might—for fear of drowning out its message.

COMMENTS: I read Allan Watts’ classic “The Way of Zen” when I was eighteen, then promptly forgot about him. That’s not a knock on Watts, but a testament to how good a communicator he was: read one book, listen to one of his lectures, and you feel enlightened, as if you know everything there is to know about Buddhism.

Zen Dog is structured around one of Watts’ thought experiment/parables, which begins “I wonder what you would do, if you had the power to dream at night any dream you wanted to dream…” Kyle Gallner’s “Mud” (!) is a twentysomething virtual-reality entrepreneur pushing headsets that will allow users to tour Hawaii or Paris without ever leaving their living rooms. He’s also having a recurring nightmare about slaving in a corporate office building where one of his co-workers commits suicide. Cue dorky cousin Dwayne, a professional student who arrives on spring break to crash on Mud’s couch and introduce him to the idea of lucid dreaming (aided by an exotic Chinese herb/drug nicknamed “maya”) as a way to resolve his psychological issues. Though purportedly a harmless natural sleep aid, the maya sure acts like a powerful hallucinogen—plus, it’s addictive. But it does enable Mud to enter his lucid dreamspace, where he begins to live the life he’s secretly always wanted—one where he’s a vagabond wandering around America in a VW bug borrowed from Ken Kesey and a jacket on loan from ‘s “Captain America,” meeting and romancing a (literal!) manic pixie dream girl while listening to a Allan Watts lectures on casette tape.

The scenario sounds like a groovy neo-hippie fantasia, and without Watts’ calm, authoritative voice to guide us, it probably would play out as a naive goof. But Watts’ ruminations, though simplified and popularized, are legitimately profound nuggets of ancient wisdom: the idea that our entire ego-structure—our understanding of ourselves as a person with a name and a job and a desire for advancement—is an elaborate facade built up over the years, which (by design) inhibits our ability to be in the here and now, as a simple expression of reality. We must unlearn what we’ve been taught to know what we are. Compressed into several nights of dreaming, Mud travels through stages of enlightenment, from flirtations with simple hedonism to romantic attachment to elaborate mindblowing cosmic journeys—but ends up with the wisdom that, although his ego is a real and vital part of him, he does not have to allow its demands to make him miserable.

Despite its low budget, the acting and technical aspects of the film are serviceable to good. Zen Dog puts today’s democratizing computer technology to excellent use, achieving psychedelic effects—double images, pinpoint editing, rainbow saturation—with ease and facility. This is how would do it today, if he were still making acid movies aimed at the tune-in drop-out crowd. Scenes shot in San Francisco, Reno, Chicago, and the flat prairies of middle America add additional production value. Allan Watts’ son Mark served as an executive producer and licensed his father’s extensive audio archives for the film, and Zen Dog works best as an introduction to Watts’ philosophy—a noble purpose for a budget effort. It’s not every movie in which the characters drop acid while inside a lucid dream itself induced by a hallucinogenic herb—and where that far-out, Inceptiony scenario actually makes sense as part of a sophisticated theme positing that life itself is a dream which we can take control of, if we only realize we’re dreaming. Zen Dog isn’t ashamed to let its freak flag fly, and, like a guileless puppy, it’s enthusiasm can lighten a stern heart.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s all too easy to write off films like this as hippy fluff, and all too often they suffer from being made by people who are not entirely sober – a stranger’s trip usually being about as interesting as a stranger’s role-playing character – but Zen Dog is something different. There’s real craftsmanship on display here, tight editing and a laudably balanced approach that invites us to wonder without drowning us in excess.”–Jennie Kermode, Eye on Film (contemporaneous)