FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL CAPSULE 2021: FRANK & ZED

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DIRECTED BY: Jesse Blanchard

FEATURING: Voices of Jason Ropp, Steve Overton

PLOT: When the king’s line is severed, a demon’s curse comes to pass; meanwhile, Frank and Zed attempt to get through their days without too many pieces falling off.

Still from Frank & Zed (2021)

COMMENTS: Sometimes when you dip your hand into a swirling bucket of goo, you fish out something worth writing home about. Perhaps it’s not a traditionally worthwhile film, but there is plenty of diverting violence, clever visuals, and a suspicious amount of pathos to be found in Jesse Blanchard’s years-in-the-making fantasy puppet horror buddy comedy, Frank & Zed.

The tone is set with a puppet barbershop quartet in the opening short, “Shine.” The quad of dulcet singers croon in mighty harmony before slowly enduring a splat-stick massacre by unseen forces in the audience. The three minutes of chuckles, we are told, took two months to create; Frank & Zed took six… years. The scale of ambition behind this film boggles the mind, as does the occasional depth of feeling elicited by Blanchard and his gang of puppeteers. I was reminded often that effort of this kind translates to the screen in a way that movies made by committee—even those with exponentially larger budgets and a bevy of known actors—do not.

Frank is a (Frankenstein‘s) monster-style workaday minion, created from an unknown number of people and requiring a battery to recharge his heartbeat every day. This process allows for some of the incongruously sweet character interplay between the shambling monster and his differently shambling friend, Zed. Frank may be slowly falling apart, but Zed is in far worse way; we first meet this zombie when Frank chides him for trying to nibble on a piece of his own brain idly plucked from the large hole in his head. Watching gruesome puppet monsters with a near-wordless friendship feels odd, particularly when their interactions pull on the old heart-strings. The scene during which Frank lovingly reattaches Zed’s hand, donating some of his own reinforcing nails in the process, left me almost teary-eyed.

I shall pull no punches here, however. Frank & Zed nearly crumbles apart whenever the titular characters are not on the screen. While the pair is nailed to an adequate plot-frame, I couldn’t help but suspect that Team Blanchard would have done better keeping the film focused on the rickety duo. The Pavarotti-inspired baker was amusing as a victim, but the nearby villagers were (ironically) less fleshed out than Frank and Zed; time amongst them felt like time wasted. The gore that permeated was amusing until it went into overkill. (Possessed death-mice: good; forty minutes of puppet slicing-and-dicing, a bit less so.) Still and all, this was a great kick-off to the Fantasia 2021 festival; I find it unlikely I’ll find a sweeter friendship on display than Frank and Zed’s.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As for the inevitable Muppets comparisons, this is a darkly beautiful Fraggle Rock, a perfect exploration of a weird and wonderful world brought to live by extraordinarily talented puppeteers… But that orgy of blood is where everything gets slippy, and the charm wears thin. It shows the downside of a passion project: that there’s no one around not so personally invested that they can say ‘no.'”–Richard Whittaker, Austin Chronicle (online festival screening)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2021 CAPSULE: SATOSHI KON: THE ILLUSIONIST (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Pascal-Alex Vincent

FEATURING: Masashi Ando, , , Shozu Iizuka, Nobutaka Ike, , Taro Maki, Masao Maruyama, Masafumi Mima, Sadayuki Murai, Hiroyuki Okiura, , Aya Suzuki, Yasutaka Tsutsui, Masaaki Usada, , , , Rodney Rothman

PLOT: A documentary survey of the career of influential animator .

Still from Satoshi Kon, Illusionist (2020)

COMMENTS: It would be impossible to make a bad documentary about Satoshi Kon. So long as you have access to clips of Mima’s pink pop alter ego bouncing onstage, Chiyoko donning an astronaut’s helmet to take off for the moon, the homeless godfathers cradling an orphan, Lil’ Slugger brandishing his bent golden bat, and Paprika‘s parade of cellphone-headed schoolgirls, you can keep an audience enthralled.

Illusionist includes little archival material featuring the man himself. Kon shunned the spotlight, preferring to let his work speak for itself. Most of the talking heads who appear to tell stories about the auteur are respectful, if not worshipful. The only exceptions come from a couple of collaborators who found Kon difficult to work with because of his perfectionism: Mamoru Oshii relates that Kon was too headstrong to accept a secondary role as artist on the manga they worked on together, while an animator describes quitting after Kon insulted his work ethic (a decision he later regretted). But while a single interviewee calls him “nasty,” most describe Kon as “gentle.”

We learn next to nothing about Kon’s background or personal life. What was his childhood like? Was he married? But that’s OK. Not every artist lives a fascinating life outside of their work; some (most?) are just dedicated, hardworking craftsmen. I suspect Kon would approve of a documentary focused on the movies he put so much work into, rather than the man behind them. Structurally, Illusionist goes through Kon’s catalog in chronological order. Because, due to his tragic death at 46, Kon’s cinematic output only lasted for a decade—four feature films and the TV series “Paranoia Agent“—the documentary is able to take a deep dive into each individual work, sprinkling in background information from those who worked with Kon and appreciation and analysis from admirers. When a female collaborator questions why the protagonist in Perfect Blue has to suffer so much, Kon responds that when he writes women’s roles, he’s really writing about himself. We learn that Slaughterhouse Five influenced Millennium Actress due to the way the narrative jumped around in time while still telling a coherent story. Kon’s producer describes Tokyo Godfathers as an attempt to tell a lighter, more entertaining story that nevertheless explores the issue of marginalized Japanese—homeless people scratching out an existence in the midst of an economic miracle. A philosophy professor lectures his students on how “Paraonia Agent” predicts the alienation of cellphone society. Paprika, Kon’s final completed film and biggest hit, is the culmination of the themes of dreams, blurred realities and multiple identities that run throughout his films—themes which, according the the artist himself, he was about to put behind him before his life was cut short.

There isn’t much here that will come as a revelation to anyone who’s followed Kon’s career. The most notable rarities are brief peeks at the artist’s early manga work, and a more substantial look at the concept art for his final (unfinished) project, Dreaming Machine. But for Konophiles, this trip down memory lane, illustrated with some of his most startling and beautifully composed artwork, will be a welcome experience, a chance to relive these classics while expanding your understanding of them. Perhaps no other director has as high a batting average as Kon: in five outings, he never slumped once. Anyone who has yet to experience the treasure trove he left behind in his short career is in for a treat.  As Aronofsky puts it, any Kon film is “a full human meal.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

The Illusionist stresses Kon’s genius as a filmmaker and gentleness as a man. It argues for him as a visionary who plowed his own deep furrow through the anime industry, driven by a combination of talent, ambition, self-confidence, and the faith of allies. It does this well.”–Alex Doduk de Wit, Cartoon Brew–(festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE GREEN KNIGHT (2021)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander

PLOT: King Arthur’s nephew Gawain accepts a challenge from the mysterious Green Knight to deliver a blow that will be returned to him in exactly one year.

Still from The Green Knight

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The Green Knight reconnects us with the deep weirdness of ancient legends, where even Arthur’s shiny new Christian order cannot banish the strange chthonic magics growing from the world below.

COMMENTS: We find him hungover in a brothel on Christmas morning. Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, is dissolute, only seated at the Round Table thanks to nepotism. He tells his uncle that he has no stories to tell, but when the half-tree, half-man Green Knight strides into Camelot (summoned, it seems, by witchcraft), he himself will become the tale. Since none of Arthur’s other knights will accept the oaken interloper’s proposed “game” to trade blows—delivered a year apart—with his axe, Gawain, suddenly ambitious to make a name for himself, steps forward and unwisely cleaves the Knight’s head from his trunk. This fails to deter the tree-man, who merely picks up the severed appendage and reminds Gawain of his date one year hence.

Thus begins Gawain’s quest to become a man. The knight’s code of honor Gawain aspires to demands that he keep his word and, although his resolve trembles a bit, he never seriously doubts that he will face his fate. Lowery fills out the sketchy 14th-century poem with some new incidents (which feel authentically Arthurian, like a version of the story of St. Winifred), but his main twist on the ancient legend is to make Gawain human, relatable, a man with feet of clay who nonetheless perseveres in his duty—or one who is pulled forward inexorably by his fate. As with most of The Green Knight, it’s unclear whether Gawain’s willingness to sacrifice himself is noble, or merely predestined. Contradictions abound: the pagan and the Christian exist side by side, an ancient story is told through a modern lens, and green, as Alicia Vikander reminds us in a long poetic speech, is simultaneously the color of life and of death.

There are strange things in the world which defy all logic, and Gawain experiences many of them on his journey. Heads persist separately from their bodies, women pass out magical totems and sashes, corpses hang at crossroads, giants plod along in an inexplicable parade, and a fox joins his quest (and dispenses advice). In every hut and castle along the way, Gawain encounters strange residents who may actually be ghosts, fairies, or magicians. Dreaminess overtakes our hero as he advances towards the Green Chapel, but in the end, only the clear inevitability of the axe-blow awaits. The formalist minimalism of Lowery’s A Ghost Story yields to a fiery maximalism of fantasy, but the dire existential edge remains.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A mystical and enthralling medieval coming-of-age story in which King Arthur’s overeager adult nephew learns that the world is weirder and more complicated than he ever thought possible, ‘The Green Knight’ is an intimate epic told with the self-conviction that its hero struggles to find at every turn. Stoned out of its mind and shot with a genre-tweaking mastery that should make John Boorman proud, it’s also the rare movie that knows exactly what it is, which is an even rarer movie that’s perfectly comfortable not knowing exactly what it is.”–David Ehrlich, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 7/30/2021

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Our weekly look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs and Blu-rays (and hot off the server VODs), and on more distant horizons…

Trailers of new release movies are generally available at the official site links.

IN THEATERS (LIMITED RELEASE):

The Green Knight: An adaptation of the Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain, who accepts the Green Knight’s challenge to engage in a friendly beheading contest. ‘s long-awaited (and pandemic-delayed) epic is being characterized as “stoned” and “surreal.” The Green Knight official site.

Mondo Hollywoodland: We’re just going to drop this logline here: “A groovy mushrooms dealer and a man from the 5th dimension journey through Hollywood to find the meaning of ‘Mondo.'” Needless to say, you’re more likely to catch this one on VOD than at your local cineplex. Mondo Hollywoodland official site.

Never Gonna Snow Again: A mysterious masseur appears in an upscale Polish neighborhood. Comparisons to Teorema naturally arise. Never Gonna Snow Again American distributor site.

Nine Days: Souls interview to potentially be born on Earth. Jake Wilson of The Age was lukewarm but concedes that the movie has a “certain amount of genuine weirdness.” Nine Days official site.

STREAMING (ARROW):

Man Under Table (2021): Read our review and interview with Noel David Taylor. Thanks to Arrow’s streaming service, this microbudget surreal satire on indie filmmaking (and fracking) has a chance to be seen by a relatively wide audience. Be sure to freeze frame that trailer to read the critic’s quotes. Man Under Table at Arrow.

NEW ON HOME VIDEO:

Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001): Read Giles Edwards’ review. Christophe Gans‘ genre-spanning cult movie (is it a werewolf flick? mystery? action picture?) gets a collector’s edition Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, promising four hours of bonus material. Buy Brotherhood of the Wolf.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002): Read Giles Edwards’ review. ‘s face-value script about “Gong Show” producer Chuck Barris’ alleged double life as a spy is released on Blu-ray for the first time (in North America). Buy Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

“Ken Jacobs Collection, Volume 1”:  A collection of Jacob’s experimental movies, including arty and weird films like the doll-abusing short “Little Stabs at Happiness” and the abstract feature-length experiment “Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son.” Despite being “Volume 1” this is a “greatest hits” 2-Blu-ray collection that spans the director’s entire output from 1955-2021. Buy “The Ken Jacobs Collection, Volume 1”.

L’amour braque [Mad Love] (1985): A bank robber seeks to rescue his girlfriend from mobsters. A confusing postmodern gangster film from , inspired by Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot.” Blu-ray only, with special features including multiple commentary tracks, from Kino Lorber’s “Studio Classics” sub-label. Buy L’amour Braque.

CANONICALLY WEIRD (AND OTHER) REPERTORY SCREENINGS:

This section will no longer be updated regularly. Instead, we direct you to our new “Repertory Cinemas Near You” page. This week, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art is officially back, hosting screenings of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) this Wednesday through next Friday. We also welcome back Pittsburgh’s  Row House Cinema, who reopens with a week’s worth of Night of the Hunter (1955) among their offerings. We will continue to mention exceptional events in this space from time to time.

WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE: We’ll still be taking votes and comments on August’s Weird Netflix Watch Party (scheduled for August 7) until tomorrow.

We’ll be busy next week. The Fantasia Film Festival officially kicks off next Thursday, and we’ll be pre-gaming it as Giles Edwards kicks off his coverage with “fantasy puppet horror buddy comedy” Frank & Zed, while inspects the dream-auditing indie drama Strawberry Mansion. (That’s at a minimum; you might be seeing other movies covered, too). With all that, we still need to give you our take on The Green Knight (see trailer above); and, since you might be tired of all this current stuff, Pete Trbovich pitches in with a vintage review of Christopher Lee in 1967’s sque The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism. Onward and weirdward!

What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that we have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.

18*. GREEN SNAKE (1993)

 Ching se

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“Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility, to feel honoured?”–D.H. Lawrence, “Snake”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Maggie Cheung, Joey Wang, Wenzhuo Zhao, Hsing-Kuo Wu

PLOT: After imprisoning the soul of a shapeshifting spider in a bowl, a monk spares the lives of two snakes, one white and one green. The two snakes take human form, seeking to learn the wisdom of our species. White falls in love with a scholar, while Green is more mischievous and seductive; eventually, the monk regrets sparing the pair, and seeks to banish them to their old forms.

Still from Green Snake (1993)

BACKGROUND:

  • As a director, and perhaps even more importantly as a producer, Tsui Hark is one of the key figures in the Hong Kong New Wave of the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Hark wrote the screenplay based on Lilian Lee Pik-Wah’s novel, which was itself based on an ancient Chinese legend. In the original tale the Green Snake is a subordinate character to the White Snake, but in the novel and movie they are of approximately equal importance.
  • The same folktale was the basis for The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011) with Jet Li, and the recent Chinese animated hits White Snake (2019) and Green Snake (2021).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: An amazing moment occurs when meditating monk Fa-hai is bedeviled by lustful demons, who appear to him as bald women in skintight cat suits. Shocked when one appears in his lap, he leaps ten feet into the air in front of his giant Buddha statue, then fights the felines off with a flaming sword while they taunt him.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Monk tempted by pussies; snake joins a Bollywood dance number

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Tsui Hark has style to spare, but spares none of it in this feverish epic filled with Taoist magic and Buddhist mysticism. A spectacle for the ages, Green Snake goes beyond the merely exotic into the realm of the hallucinatory.


UK trailer for Green Snake (1993)

COMMENTS: Green Snake gives you everything you could want in a Continue reading 18*. GREEN SNAKE (1993)

CHANNEL 366: I THINK YOU SHOULD LEAVE WITH TIM ROBINSON (2019-2021)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alice Mathias, Akiva Schaffer, Zach Kanin, Mike Diva, Zachary Johnson, Jeffrey Max

FEATURING: Tim Robinson

PLOT: A series of characters confront a world that does not welcome their honesty, bluntness, or failure to comprehend simple-yet-unspoken rules of social interaction.

Still from "I Think You SHould Leave with Tim Robinson" (2021)

COMMENTS: It’s hard to imagine a sketch show opening with a more fully realized statement of purpose than the one that kicks off Tim Robinson and Zach Kanin’s smorgasbord of cringe comedy. Having completed what looks to be a successful job interview in a coffee shop, a man makes his exit. However, he mistakenly pulls on a door which clearly swings out. Desperate to save face, he continues to pull, in the face of gentle correction from his interviewer and the increasing stress and strain from the effort. Ultimately, the fear of humiliation gives him the strength to break the door’s hinges, forcing it to swing inward. It’s a huge relief. Anything, anything to not be wrong.

That combination of aggressive awkwardness and interpersonal incompetence struck a nerve. Season 1 of “I Think You Should Leave,” in particular, proved to be a goldmine for viral jokes, especially in an age when our leaders seemed similarly inclined to do whatever damage was necessary in order to not be thought a fool. Meme-able highlights include a woman who fails to comprehend the subtleties of Instagram snark, a dabbing old man who derails a car focus group with absurd complaints, and a man in a hot dog costume who steadfastly refuses to acknowledge any responsibility for the wreck of his encased-meat mobile. Combined with the binge-friendly 15-minute running time of each episode, Season 2 was almost certainly inevitable.

That season has arrived, and fans of the first set of episodes will be pleased to know that Robinson’s taste for the ridiculous and the bizarre has not abated. If anything, he’s doubled-down on the bad behaviors and convention-flouting characters that made an initial splash. To be sure, some formulas are repeated: a spot urging cable viewers to demand they carry a channel devoted primarily to a funeral blooper show evokes an earlier commercial for a personal injury law firm with a very specific area of expertise. A shirt with a built-in tugging rope pairs nicely with a new garment that sells for upwards of $2,000 based entirely on its garish and increasingly complex patterns. Robinson’s fellow Detroiter Sam Richardson even returns in a new twist on his “Baby of the Year” appearance, this time hosting a misguided corporate entertainment that invites executives at a management retreat to pick the champion “Little Buff Boy” from a selection of preening pre-teen boys in muscle suits.

But new twists abound, frequently revolving around men who have reached the limits of their ability to cope with a world they don’t understand. A video explaining ear-piercing to young girls is mashed-up with a gruff old man’s lifelong regrets. A diner customer seizes on a white lie as a chance to fictionalize a life where he collects multiple versions of the same car. A devoted husband is wrecked by the betrayal of joining in his friends’ sexist jokes about their wives. Robinson himself is overcome with ennui immediately upon donning ill-fitting old makeup for a prank show. If most of the show’s characters are scorned for their refusal to follow social convention, the ones who play by the rules don’t seem any happier.

The essential elements of “I Think You Should Leave” are all in place: People behave awfully, and then blame others. They flout the rules of convention, and then forcefully reject society’s disapproval by championing themselves as bastions of freedom and justice. How dare you ask Santa Claus about his holiday gig when he’s here to promote his new action-revenge thriller? Where do you get off firing a man just because he tries to eat a hot dog hidden away in his sleeve, denies doing so, and then chokes on the link and throws up on a co-worker’s luggage? Doesn’t the recipient of a multi-million dollar personal injury award deserve a place as one of the rough-and-tumble investors on a “Shark Tank”-style show as much as some by-their bootstraps entrepreneur? Even a child’s doll lies to deflect shame. “I Think You Should Leave”’s characters are consistently awful at the job of being decent human beings, and they absolutely blame you.

Nothing may typify Robinson’s comedy more than a sketch about a haunted house tour in which the guide unwittingly trumpets the adults-only hour and encourages the guests to “say whatever you want.” Robinson’s tourist, taking the instruction literally, seizes the opportunity to bellow off-color (and seemingly unrelated) references to horse anatomy. But while the joke may end there, the sketch continues as Robinson tries with increasing despair to get it right. Ultimately, and not surprisingly, he is booted from the tour, and he leaves to the tune of a sad piano, utterly perplexed at his fate. The show’s title may reflect to message we convey to those who don’t fit in, but Robinson offers pity to all those rejects, no matter how much carnage they leave in their wake.

“I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson” streams on Netflix.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the enduring appeal of I Think You Should Leave doesn’t rest in the question of which sketches work and which don’t. It’s more about the way viewers get drawn into its bizarro universe. It’s a world plagued by comic magicians, imbalanced nacho-sharing, and an aggressive baby named Bart Harley Jarvis. In this vision of comedy, the most mundane social missteps are the principal causes of human anguish. In season 2, Robinson and Kanin stay that course, and the best bits are the ones that exploit a simple, weird concept in ways that play on the successes of the first season, but still find surprising elements.”–Brianna Zigler, Polygon (contemporaneous)

 

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