Tag Archives: 2017

CAPSULE: ZAMA (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lucrecia Martel

FEATURING: Daniel Giménez Cacho

PLOT: A Spanish magistrate at an Amazonian outpost in Argentina longs for a transfer so he can return to his family.

Still from Zama (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s subtly strange, but we prefer much more strangeness and less subtlety.

COMMENTS: Form follows theme in Zama, a movie about a man waiting for a transfer that never comes, in which the viewer waits for a reason to keep watching that never arrives. If one is looking for things to praise, the usual arthouse accoutrements easy enough to point out: the wild Amazonian locations, the widescreen cinematography that captures it, and Daniel Giménez Cacho’s performance as the weary, increasingly resigned magistrate. After that, I fear, you’re pretty much on your own.

Zama has many plot oddments but next to no plot. It may too effectively capture the feeling of being trapped in a stifling, dull job while wishing you were somewhere else. It’s a series of mostly middling anecdotes with little connection, vague developments that often mystify without involving. A young boy declares our hero Zama is “a god who was born old and can’t die.” Zama secretly courts a fellow official’s wife. Anachronistic Hawaiian exotica plays (admittedly, this sounds pretty cool). A black messenger repeatedly shows up with instructions for Zama; he doesn’t wear pants. Zama gets into a fight with a Spanish emissary for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. The governor promises to write a letter requesting a transfer for the magistrate, but never gets around to it. A llama wanders onto the set and the actors ignore it and continue the scene. (This shot impressed many critics, maybe because they were eager to praise the film but couldn’t find much else going on to talk about.) We learn that Zama has a bastard son. The colonists play dice; a geode is offered to cover a bet, but Zama insists it’s worthless. Zama hears a minor character’s thoughts. Zama catches a fever and moves to a hovel. He betrays a friend, hoping to get a letter of recommendation. Things pick up a little at the very end when he grows a beard and joins an expedition to hunt down the outlaw Vicuña, whom he has spent the movie insisting is dead. Then Zama dies. I don’t know what to make of these events, but I’m not inspired to make the effort.

While other critics raved about Zama‘s anti-colonialist ethos and poetic aesthetic, I side with general audiences in thinking that this one is—to put it bluntly—boring. It would benefit from cutting thirty minutes off of its meandering front end. Perhaps the problem is that it’s too faithful an adaptation of its 1956 source novel—Zama‘s meditative pace seems like it would read better on the page than it plays onscreen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a patient, delicately strange film chronicling an increasingly impatient man and a destiny beyond his control.”–Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune (contemporaneous)

356. NOVEMBER (2017)

“They’re the sort of old legends that are made up just to find a simple reason for every complicated thing. No one wants to admit that they’re foolish. The Frog of the North appeared in the sky from who knows where, and he disappeared again who knows where. But people couldn’t be content with that! Humans can’t stand things that are outside their reach.”–Andrus Kiviräh, “The Man Who Spoke Snakish”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rainer Sarnet

FEATURING: Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik

PLOT: Estonian peasant Liina, who may be able to transform into a wolf, is in love with fellow villager Hans, who returns her affection until he catches a glimpse of the daughter of the German baron who now rules their territory and is immediately smitten. Liina appeals to a witch to cast a spell to turn Hans’ heart to her. Hans, in turn, makes a deal with the Devil to build a kratt he believes will help him reach his beloved.

BACKGROUND:

  • November is based on the Estonian novel “Rehepapp: ehk November” by Andrus Kiviräh, which was a massive success in its homeland. “Rehepapp” has not been translated into English, although Kiviräh’s second novel, “The Man Who Spoke Snakish,” which treats fading pagan beliefs in a similar fashion, has been.
  • The producers raised money through crowdfunding to produce a model of a kratt, then used the test footage to secure money for the film from Polish and Dutch sources.
  • Most of the minor villager roles are played by nonprofessional actors.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our first look at a kratt: it’s a cow skull tied to three sticks, with sharp farm implements tied to them, which cartwheels across the lawn of an 19th century villa on its way to break down a stable door.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Kratt airlifting cow; the chicken dead; two-ass plague gambit

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Set in a world where our forefathers’ craziest superstitions are literally true, November weaves a Gothic tapestry of sleepwalking noblewomen, hags, bewitched friars, and dead ancestors who sometimes manifest as chickens. And, of course, kratts that turn into primitive helicopters. You could not have seen that one coming.


U.S. trailer for November

COMMENTS: November is, at least superficially, like the Estonian Continue reading 356. NOVEMBER (2017)

CAPSULE: TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Kaho, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Megumi Kagurazaka

PLOT: A clan of vampires forced to live in hiding attempt to tip the scales of power by capturing a group of humans in their hotel fortress and turning them into a generational supply of food; however, their perennial aboveground enemies have conspired to birth an avenger during a cosmic convergence, and now that she has come of age, the final battle between the two warring forces is at hand.

Still from Tokyo Vampire Hotel (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aside from being a TV miniseries, and therefore technically beyond our purview, “Tokyo Vampire Hotel” has a difficult time figuring out what it wants to be. Although it is built upon a foundation of gore and slapstick and features elaborate and sometimes confusing worldbuilding, the story works best at a character level, focusing on the motivations of its complicated leads. At its best, the weirdness tends to be more window dressing than of a true mission of the series.

COMMENTS: Following my lengthy discourse on the cinematic genre of vampires, as well as my brief sojourn into the vault of the Nikkatsu film studio, watching this 9-part bloodsucker miniseries felt a bit like old home week. Fortunately, that’s not to say it was boring to watch Sion Sono’s take on the legend. Far from it; as much as he may be cherry-picking his favorite parts of the mythos, what he has created is anything but a retread.

If anything, Tokyo Vampire Hotel has way too much going on. The very first episode opens with a deeply uncomfortable mass shooting, which serves as a springboard for the kind of violence-chase set pieces that would be completely at home in an 80s Hollywood action movie. But this quickly fractures into a character study of our two heroines: Manami, an orphan raised under trying circumstances to become the vanquisher of an entire race of vampires, and K, the underground defender whose unrequited love is consistently co-opted for the violent means of others. When not delving into their backstories, Sono is creating the candy-colored, blood-drenched world of the titular hotel, populated by eccentric characters that include a vampire queen who keeps shrinking into nothingness, a wildly attired, dreadlocked hepcat whose own father sold him to vampires as a baby in exchange for becoming Japan’s prime minister, and a maternal figure who may be housing the entire hotel within her nether regions. Add into that a ballroom full of lovelorn humans who have been lured into the hotel (and for whom seemingly every one is provided a rich backstory), a cult of hippie-like Romanians who are connected to Tokyo by tunnel, and a late-series jump forward in time that almost completely restarts the story, and the effect is downright dizzying. It’s legitimately weird, but after a while, it becomes a “Mad Lib” kind of weird: oddness courtesy of dissonance.

Which only makes it all the more astonishing that Sono then carved Continue reading CAPSULE: TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL (2017)

CAPSULE: MOLLY (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Colinda Bongers, Thijs Meuwese

FEATURING: Julia Batelaan, Annelies Appelhof

PLOT: Gifted with supernatural powers, Molly survives as a scavenger in a post-apocalyptic world, while a warlord tries to capture her and force her to become his champion in deadly cage fights.

Still from Molly (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Molly‘s main—well, only—claim to weirdness is its namesake’s superpowers, and the fact that they’re entirely unexplained. That’s not enough to qualify it as a truly bizarre film, let alone one of the weirdest ever made. Still, although it may have mainstream genre aspirations, normals will never see Molly as one of their own.

COMMENTS: Detailed worldbuilding is not Molly‘s strong suit. It would rather focus on kicking ass. It throws you into its post-apocalyptic milieu without much explanation, trusting you have seen enough Mad Max movies to know what’s going on. Tropes like the lone scavenger, the orphan of the wasteland, the barter-based economy, and a scaled-down Thunderdome-style arena ground you. Other concepts are not fully explored: what exactly are the “supplicants”? They seem to be either an underclass (everyone who is not a warlord), or a nickname for the cage fighters, or simply people who (futilely and foolishly) ask others for food. Most significant of all, Molly’s telekinetic superpowers are not explained, although there are a few obscure hints, and the ending suggests that an (unlikely) sequel might explain more about her origins.

Molly’s magical abilities are important because they level the playing field, helping to explain how this slip of a gal, just barely out of her teenage years and not tipping the scales at much more than a hundred pounds, can slug it out toe-to-toe with the baddest asses the Wasteland has to offer. Make no mistake, fighting is what Molly is all about. She can be shrewd, to be sure—she uses a rope to retrieve her only arrow so she can fire it multiple times—but mostly, she takes on crews of guys almost twice her size with nothing but kicks, punches, and swipes from her wicked handsaw. There are three or four major fights sprinkled throughout the first part, but the final act is basically an extended thirty-minute melee as Molly carves her way through a small army of punk henchmen and drug-crazed zombie fighters on an oil rig turned floating fiefdom. Few of Molly‘s performers, including the lead, are especially athletic or polished; but, as other reviewers have pointed out, the film uses its performers’ clumsiness to its advantage. The battles feel authentic, like messy, stumbling, bone-crunching street brawls rather than precisely choreographed ballets. (At one point, Molly pelts an assailant with tin cans grabbed off a shelf.) Clever editing, including some invisible cuts used to make some of the fights appear to be done in a single take, helps immensely. At times it the camera employs a high shutter speed (the “Saving Private Ryan effect”) which reduces motion blur, making scenes seem choppier but allowing you to see details like water droplets or globs of sand suspended in the air. It’s a technique I find annoying in high budget films, but in a modest effort like this I think it’s a good choice to add some camouflage to the amateur stunt work. Sometimes the filmmakers shoot with a jerky handheld camera to emphasize the chaos, and at other times the camera is stable, allowing the performers to stagger about; they aren’t locked into a particular style, but go with whatever feels right for the scene. The pièce de résistance occurs when Molly finds herself hanging upside down over the fighting pit while supplicants claw at her. Molly—both character and film—survives by pure ingenuity.

Molly is far from perfect, as befits its modest, ramshackle setting. Freckly Batelaan is appealing in the lead—though I kept wondering how she kept her bookworm glasses on through all the fights, when mine fall off my face every time I bend over to pick up my car keys. The rest of the acting is iffy; the main villain is not over-the-top enough, and his top henchwoman, with her cybernetic arm, easily outshines him. The small budget is apparent throughout. But despite these handicaps, Molly manages to assemble an entertaining ninety minutes, and it does it the hard way—by making a fast-paced action film rather than relying on dialogue. Fight scenes are difficult to stage, and if Molly‘s crew can produce reasonable-looking ones on this meager budget, we can only imagine what they’d pull off with significant resources behind them. As a rental, you could do a lot worse than Molly; and, as a filmmaker, you could do a lot worse your first time out than making a movie people could do a lot worse than seeing.

In an earlier age Molly might have graced drive-in screens. Nowadays, Artsploitation releases it straight to home video and video-on-demand. The DVD and Blu-ray come with thirty minutes of behind-the-scenes footage and a director’s commentary from Thijs Meuwese; these featurettes will be inspiring to fellow low budget filmmakers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Colinda Bongers and Thijs Meuwese have managed to create a fun post-apocalyptic caper, and even more impressively: they manage to surprise.”–Ard Vijn, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

CAPSULE: THE BOOK OF BIRDIE (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Elizabeth E. Schuch

FEATURING: Ilirida Memedovski, Kitty Fenn, Suzan Crowley, Kathryn Browning

PLOT: A young woman is brought to a convent to protect her from an unspecified danger. There, she explores both her emerging spirituality and womanhood.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Schuch’s movie relies heavily on a theological flavor of “magic realism”. While it explores various fringe topics—(clerical) sisterhood, puberty, paganism, and suicide—using a variety of stylish techniques, it doesn’t push boundaries as far as it should, and ultimately doesn’t adequately explore the various narrative avenues it goes down.

COMMENTS: Director Elizabeth Shuch cannot be accused of lacking in ideas. With her directorial debut, she touches on many. So many that I feel compelled to type (some of) them out, bullet-style:

  • The intersection between Femininity and Christianity.
  • The intersection between Christianity and Paganism.
  • The intersection between Paganism and Femininity.
  • Coming of age, first love, and suicide.

Throughout The Book of Birdie, Shuch touches on all these topics while maintaining a precarious narrative thread.

Our story begins in a dying convent consisting of a dozen or so nuns. Young Birdie (Ilirida Memedovski) has been brought there for the protection and (ostensible) comfort that a life of wholesome religiosity may bring. Birdie integrates with her new wards slowly, but surely, while also making acquaintance (then friendship, then love) with Julia, the daughter of the convent’s groundskeeper. Birdie learns prayers, attends services, and sees the ghosts of two dead nuns haunting the convent. After staining her bedding with a heavy menstrual flow, things become slightly more unreal.

Arthouse film techniques abound. There are long shots of Birdie’s entrancingly dark eyes. Ephemeral lighting illuminates the inside of the compound while the bleak sun saturates the outdoors. Stylized animations of symbolic imagery are seamlessly integrated. While the camera-work and editing flirt along the edge of heavy-handedness, they never fall into parody. The nun characters—both alive and dead—help to keep the film grounded in the reality of this hollowed-out haven. One enthusiastic nun in particular stands out. She confides her aspirations to Birdie: “I knew Jesus was the only man for me when I had my First Communion. I felt the wafer sizzle in my mouth and I felt him calling to me. Everything I’ve done since then has been to prepare me for a spiritual life. I want to be the best.” Unfortunately, it is Birdie who experiences the transcendence that this nun strives for—without even trying. The cause (effect?) of this transcendence brings me to a needful observation.

This film has a lot of blood in it. A lot of menstrual blood. It shows up in specks around the chapel, it shows up in trails, and it shows up in the small vials that Birdie fills with it and on occasion drinks from. She also crafts what I can only describe as a “fetus fetish” from porridge and stores it in vinegar. This entity comes to life on occasion, as does a statue of Christ—as do her reproductive organs, which we see escaping her body and flying off, like an angel. There is a mountain of symbolism of which, with my limited catechism, I can only understand fleeting hints.

The important question , though, is whether this works as a movie. To that I say, “Yes… mostly.” The performances are all tip-top and the limited scenery provides a real sense of a derelict, isolated haven. And, I suppose, the narrative moves from one point to the next, with a beginning, middle, and end. However, I can’t help but feel that this movie is like an empty Chinese puzzle box. Fascinating to watch unfold, but ultimately yielding nothing. An ambiguously tragic life is explored with ambiguously theological symbols to bring us to an ambiguous, but tragic, ending. All spirit and no flesh, perhaps?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird, glittery, feminine fever dream.”–Lindsay Pugh, Woman in Revolt (festival screening)

CAPSULE: ALL YOU CAN EAT BUDDHA (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Ian Lagarde

FEATURING: Ludovic Berthillot, Sylvio Arriola, Yaité Ruiz

PLOT: A vacationing gourmand stays on indefinitely at an all-inclusive resort, performs ambiguous miracles, and is treated as a messiah.

Stil lfrom All You Can Eat Buddha (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s one of those indie experiments that’s content to hang out in its own strange little surreal corner of the film world, but lacks the sense of purpose or urgency necessary to break into big time weird.

COMMENTS: Director Ian Lagarde is better known as a cinematographer (Vic + Flo Saw a Bear). That background shows in his eye for composition in his debut feature, which contrasts bright tropical travelogue footage of a Cuban resort with moody images from the surrounding ocean, with the film’s color palette growing increasingly shadowy as it progresses. He also finds a surprisingly charismatic lead in chubby Ludovic Berthillot, who, as Mike, looks like a melancholic Quebecois Curly Howard, yet somehow becomes believable as a mystical guru and sex god.

Unfortunately, that’s about all that can be said on a positive note for All You Can Eat Buddha, a surreal slog that’s ultimately less eventful than a day spent dozing and sunbathing at the beach. The credits play over a mini-symphony of crashing waves, whale calls, and discordant strings while a dark sea undulates with a ghostly negative image of Mike’s Buddhistically serene visage superimposed over it. This prologue promises a deep, somber, hypnotic energy, but the subsequent film is more somnolent than dreamy. The frumpy, solitary, and mysterious Mike arrives at the El Palacio, wanders around the beach speaking to no one, dines at the all-you-can-eat buffet, and decides to stay on. The film takes nearly twenty minutes to hit its first real plot point, although it’s a good ‘un: Mike rescues a grateful octopus caught in a net and the eight-legged sea beast grants him enlightenment. He then performs an ambiguous miracle or two, sleeps with a couple of lonely middle-aged women, and grows a small group of followers as he becomes a sort of anti-Buddha, renewing earthly desires rather than renouncing them. But then, like the viewer, the script loses interest in this plot line, and instead focuses on a “change of administration” in the hotel management (a political allegory?) that leads to the place deteriorating, as Mike’s body simultaneously falls apart. A sort-of subplot about a hotel maid and her son has no real resolution, and the movie limps to an ambiguous non-ending that’s neither a satisfactory convergence of themes nor a mystery that lingers; the film simply messes around for a while, then ends. A hard-eating hero, a telepathic octopus, beaches, a reference to Buddhism, adulation, and maybe some politics: it’s a puzzle movie, but one where the pieces all seem to come from different boxes.

All You Can Eat Buddha debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in late 2017, then shuffled off to video-on-demand and a freebie stint on Amazon Prime without ever stopping on physical media—an unfortunate trend that will prevent smaller films from having any sort of extended shelf life.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film’s steep turn downward is eventually triggered by its shift from merely bizarre to flat-out abstract, as Lagarde’s script takes a turn akin to 2016’s disastrous High-Rise and becomes an unwatchable portrait of civilization coming undone.”–David Nusair, Reel Film Reviews (festival screening)