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I’m a get deep like Gilles Cousteau—
“Gilles Cousteau could never get this low.”
My experience with queer cinema grows as Addison Heimann tells his story of seemingly got-it-all-together young Will whose bipolar mother dips back into his life after a ten year absence. Heimann’s story adopts an unsettling aesthetic, with its mirroring shots and recurrence of sinister man-wolves. But there is humour, too, much of it during the many encounters Will endures with increasingly specialized hospital staff, beginning with the spot-on bro nurse, “NP Chazz”, who is the first to reassure him, “It’s amazing what the human mind can do to the body.” Also keep an eye out for the knee-slapping reference to Patrick Swayze’s Ghost (our protagonist here is a potter, you see, and his demons wish to encourage his craft while they break his mind). As a character (and mental breakdown) study, Hypochondriac fits the bill nicely, but at times feels like so much sound and fury, signifying less than I might have preferred. Still, the closing scene, wherein the hospitalized Will takes comfort from his boyfriend and gives comfort to one of his inner demons, makes for both a serious and sweet finale.
Hypochondriac is in limited release in Alamo Drafthouses starting tomorrow (July 29).
Detective vs. Sleuths
Madness continues in this rather-nearly-weird movie. Call it, a police procedural comedy thriller with “Chinese characteristics”. Detective (well, more precisely, ex-cop posing as detective) Jun Lee went a bit off kilter some years ago after witnessing a demon appear at a crime scene. Having lost his badge, he has set up shop beneath an overpass, conversing with murdered murderers (yes) he imagines while overseeing his self-made, and entirely unofficial, bureau of botched cases. The guy’s a genius, you see, and even beyond his run-in with a demon there’s a Butcher / Demon Cop case that has been bugging him for two decades. Jun Lee has inspired a group of ruthless vigilantes, and their extra-judicial revenge on perps who got away lands Jun Lee in a new and manic mess.
As I mention, this film is darn close to qualifying. The premise isn’t new, per se, but watching Jun Lee dive into heavy gun fire armed only with his right hand formed into finger guns was bizarrely hilarious. Also, the director’s tendency to flash back to already-trodden ground—for the purposes of reminding the audience of events some minutes prior—is a narrative nudge I’ve only seen in Chinese (and now, Hong Kong) thrillers. By the third time the director put the very pregnant police woman senselessly in harms way, I very nearly called it. But I held back. That said, I recommend this for anyone looking for a fun cop-romp with doses of “Sherlock“, consistent humor, and a truly staggering number of projectiles.
7/22: The Harbinger
I fondly recall‘s earlier film, The Witch in the Window. It was a father-son comedy in the guise of a horror film with the moral of the need to just let go. This is something of a rejoinder to that, and is just as well made, but somehow came across as far too nihilistic. The titular “Harbinger” is a demon who thrives of social isolation and labors mightily to erase people—both from the world around them and the memories of those who knew them. Set during the height of the Covid scare (which I am reminded many times a day is not actually over), Mitton obviously makes good use of ambient panic and paranoia. The characters were all likeable (possibly one reason I didn’t care for their fates), except for that darn kid. I strongly feel there should be an actor exchange program wherein US child actors are shuffled off to points European, Asian, African… anywhere else… and learn how not to come across as annoying American kids on screen. (That said, there is a floor of quality here, and The Harbinger hovers well above it: ominously.)
Cavalcade of Perversions: I’m So Beautiful
The third and final round of the Cavalcade trio—a new-this-year exercise in assembling outlandish, misfit shorts—goes out swinging, but not quite as hard as its Sexy and Religious antecedents. Just shy of two hours, it still feels over-long: all because of the 22-minute “Hideous” and 29-minute “the Demons of Dorothy”. While each of these long-shorts have any number of recommendables within (moving musical numbers, high senses of style, and, with the latter, a sense of its own ridiculousness), in combination they rendered this Cavalcade a bit lumpy, particularly seeing as “Hideous” appeared right near the start and “Demons” wrapped things up.
But the good here was good ‘n’ plenty. (Not to be confused with those candies that are still, inexplicably, for sale everywhere.) Mirghani’s “Virtual Voice” walked the nigh-impossible tight-rope of sarcastic, satirical, self-referential, and self-effacing as a doll figurine walks us through the well-intentioned hollowness of most upper-middle-class, left-of-center activism. Léahn Vivier-Chapas’ “The Boob Fairy” creeped me the hell out while it made me laugh; there’s something about French animators that they always know how to unsettle me. And, the similarly faeried “Tank Fairy” was an hilarious treatise on disregarding gender norms, playing on the universal, unglamorous reputation of a Taiwanese propane-tank delivery guy. I took particular relish in this at the thought of potential reactions to it from right-wing wing-nuts who spend their time worrying about conversion; I’d pay to watch their heads explode whilst viewing this.
This was a nasty movie. A grimy movie. And an absolutely compelling movie. Karim Ouelhaj’s Megalomaniac is lofty in aspirations and stomach-turning in execution. Martha is a third-shift janitor at a factory; her brother Felix is an un-captured serial killer (“the Butcher of Mons”). She endures ridicule at the hands of her co-workers, and much, much more. He floats through his days, unobserved except during his brief encounters with his sister at their disintegrating estate in the middle of nowhere, or when he is performing his grisly murders. He is a lost soul; Martha does not start that way, but once her co-worker starts raping her on the job, her soft grip on human decency loosens.
Ouelhaj adds an overtly demonic current to the unpleasant proceedings, using an emphatic dirge-metal score and summoning filthy-black humanoids from the woodwork. Felix alternates between stone cold and unhinged, one of his few acts of “kindness” being the gift to his sister of a human pet. Martha, in turn, becomes a devil along with her brother, but still manages to elicit sympathy. Not long after reveling in a demon-muck-covered, orgiastic experience with her brother, I somehow managed to feel badly for her when, upon awakening, we find out she was merely dreaming. (Yes, things are that bad here.) Anyone who desires harder-core Hostel-levels of violence, and liked the art-house leanings of Hannibal while thinking that film far too tame, here you are. Enjoy.
“Anime no Bento 2022” shorts collection
“‘Deji’ Meets Girl ” (dir. Ushio Taizawa): Note to compilers: if cramming together brief installment episodes, it’s OK to edit off the repetitive connecting bits. That brief complaint out of the way, I can tell you that “‘Deji’ Meets Girl” is one of those fun romps through ancient spiritual culture that seems only to come from Asia. The “girl” in this case is an awkward sixteen-year-old working at her parents’ Osakan inn over the summer. The ‘deiji’ here (internet tells me it is some kind of water spirit) is the semi-aloof-but-very-cute anime kind of lad (late teenage?) who seems to bring supernatural phenomenon along with him whenever he comes inside the hotel. He submerges the place in (breathable) water, triggers the growth of a massive banyan tree, and freezes the sunset over the beachfront by the inn. Turns out he’s being pursued by some slippery agents who emerge one evening from the ocean, demanding drinks, games, and the boy-spirit’s mysterious debt to be repaid. Fun and forgettable.
“A Girl Meets a Boy and a Robot” (dir.): All the promised boxes are ticked, with the robot in particular deserving a shout-out for being an exemplary example of an endearing, and funny, cartoon sidekick. This film is a dystopian musing; one that manages to be both heart-warming and saddening, as reality sinks in. Man’s martial idiocy gets another (deserved) throttle on the neck, and a ramshackle supply depot has never looked so beautiful. The twist, when it comes, is delivered perfectly, and even the robot’s departure makes for more of a “Boo-yeah!” than an “Awww, no…”.
“Summer Ghost” (dir. Loundraw): This one left few dry eyes in the house (I managed to keep it together, but only with some effort). Three teenagers summon a ghost together on an abandoned airstrip to ask it questions about the afterlife. Turns out that ghosts can only communicate with those who already have death on the mind, but throughout the short film, each character has plenty of that. As something of a “supernatural mystery” movie, there is plenty of talk about life’s accidents, bullying, family pressure, and suicide. Heavy stuff, tactfully explored, and imbued with enough humor to counterbalance the ample pulling of heart-strings. Best of the bunch.
Demigod: the Legend Begins
Lacking a more culturally pertinent comparison at the moment, Demigod felt like Wagnerian Shakespeare, through puppetry. There is grandeur—from the opening scene of a mountain-top battle between two immortal god-spirits to the closing scene of a mountain-top battle between powerful magick martial-artists; there is palace intrigue—who poisoned the king, and who poisoned the master physician afterwards?; and there is plebeian humor—the earthy assistant to Su Hua-Jen always has a scheme, and Demigod isn’t above the occasional “butt” joke.
Huang Wen-Chang’s marionette epic took a little while to get into: the dialogue, all delivered by one performer, comes fast and heavy with exposition, and the uncanny nature of the puppets traipsing around on-screen is a little “off” to start. But once I adjusted my perception to pick up what was being lain down, I became fully entranced, as did the rest of the audience. Contrary to what you may suspect (and I’m blaming Team America here), marionette fight sequences can be choreographed to impressive effect. Su Hua-Jen may sound like a bookish softy (one of the main plot points is his pursuit of the Limitless Celestial Book, an ambition hindered by his massive debt in borrowing fees at the Fantastic Academy), but he knows how to lay down some serious, supernatural smack.
My Grandfather’s Demons
High-tech and low-tech collide in Nuno Beato’s film, My Grandfather’s Demons—the first stop-motion feature film from Portugal. Things kick off, however, with blatant computer animation, and I must admit to feeling like I may have been misled. However, when our stressed-out, hard-working heroine Rosa travels from the city to the tiniest of tiny villages to check out the property left her by her deceased grandfather, the shards of CGI flit away, revealing a tactile clay form beneath. This was just one among many pleasant surprises in store.
As Rosa adjusts to rural living, there are the requisite gags. A dodgy outlet nearly fries her smart phone, and has an hilarious effect on her (now claymation) cat, and suspicious neighbors suspiciously eye her with suspicion. Not only is she something of an outsider, her grandfather had become a much-hated part of the village over the years—allowing the film its darker, “demonic” undercurrents. Her quest to unravel just what he did to so anger the townsfolk keeps her there, and dreams (some bordering on sinister) guide her not only along the path of redeeming her forebear, but also learning the requisite lessons found in a family-themed movie. The “demons” are fascinating: symbolic person-memories, their appearance based on a clay figurine style famous in Northern Portugal, but similar to spirit/demon representations found around the world. Once 366 wheels out its Family Channel, My Grandfather’s Demons will be on the playlist.
This animated film took a bit to get its hooks into me, but the the final act’s intensity had me at the edge of my seat. Not something I was expecting from a computer-animated film about a young princess whose magic secures the happiness of her kingdom. But even before Opal shifted from “meh” to “compelling”, a number of its particulars kept my interest. Strong, black female leads by way of the princess and her mother; an adorable three-legged stuffed animal horse who gives advice and magically absorbs the princess’ anxiety; the Iroko spirits, which are unlike anything I’ve seen before (not surprising considering my appalling ignorance of Afro-Caribbean folklore); and the kingdom itself—interconnected oases contained in massive, hovering urns—teems with details reminiscent of early Aughts adventure games. Unfortunately, this leads me to Opal‘s weak point: an amateurishness to the animation that gives the impression of observing avatars in early 3D game.s
But there’s that final act. A dark metaphor which teases around the the periphery of the story comes to the fore as the princess flees her chambers (labeled, in odd neon-style lighting, as “Ego”) and goes to face the monsters who allegedly skulk in the subterranean “Id.” I almost heard my brain plaintively mutter, “Oh no…”, but it was. That. And it was quite an emotional experience. It is worth mentioning, too, that this film was crafted primarily by one person: Alain Bidard, who also lends his beautiful bass to the main Iroko. This was a passion project, crafted with a good ear for dialogue and profound respect for its subject matter.
Rani Rani Rani
Purposeful ambiguity, when done correctly, can enhance a film; particularly, as I discovered with Rajaram Rajendran’s Rani Rani Rani, it can enhance even a “hard” science fiction movie. When a trio of subcontinental techies discover a time-travel suit, they know they’ve struck gold; they just need to convince potential investors they know what they’re doing. They do not, and their haphazard showcase “experiment” risks skewering the life of a cleaning woman they convince to “just sit in a chair” so they can “take a photo.” Rani is a small film with a small cast (eight characters in total), but it is well told, with the only hiccup in the execution being a largely-right-feeling-but-not-quite scene between the go-getter of the tech trio and the generic Rich White Guy investor they show the machine to. Tannishtha Chatterjee, as Rani, is a treat: a shrewd, sharp-talking woman who takes no guff from her husband, and no guff from the not-so-smooth-talking entrepreneurs, whom she forces to pay her a rather hefty fee for her services. Abid Anwar makes for a perfect comedic-dramatic counterpoint to Rani in his role as nerd’s nerd, Krishna, the only one of the bunch who speaks Rani’s Hindi language. This is a smartly done, affectionately made film that is well worth your time.
A masterful example of “big world on the cheap,” Vesper is heavy on peripheral detail while focusing narrowly on the story of its titular character and her father, the latter primarily in the form of a floating bio-mechanical orb. Vesper’s swampy environ—a small post-apocalyptic town ruled over by her hard-hearted uncle—overflows with danger, be it in the form of the multivarious Hensonian flora, the grim soldiers from the nearby Citadel (an unseen local paradise, and haven for this world’s elite), the mysterious scavenger tribe of “pilgrims”, or just the desperate locals from whom nearly all kindness has been squeezed by the sickening harshness of this muddy world.
Buozyte and Samper, the co-directors, have crafted a tactile world, full of fuzz, muck, tendrils, and tiny snapping jaws. Vesper’s secret lab (she is something of a biochemist wunderkind) is protected by long worms with sharp beaks who emerge from the soily gaps between flagstones along the path. The young scientist stumbles across an ornately dressed woman being sucked upon by various parasitic plants, and with this outsider’s help works to crack the pernicious coding implanted in the local crops: Citadel denizens trade survival in the form of single-harvest seeds for rejuvenating blood from the less fortunate proles. Vesper has quite a lot to say about cruelty, power dynamics, but also hope, and says it through a humid, deathly-life infused landscape which reminds one of a cross between The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance and Stalker. A compelling, living vision.
7/25: The Pez Outlaw
Cute in subject, cute in presentation, cute in casting, The Pez Outlaw is just plain cute. The film was introduced by Amy and Bryan Storkel, who were both cute, and the Lindsay Robinson’s short film Gumball Factory preceding the feature was cute. The Outlaw in question rose to notoriety in certain circles starting in the early ’90s, before burning out and going bankrupt by the mid-’90s. During his brief heyday, Steve Glew (played by Steve Glew) was the guy when it came to exotic Pez dispensers in quantity. A self-described OCD dreamer (later diagnosed as bipolar), Steve’s modus operandi was to travel to Eastern Europe, “crazy guy”-schmooze his way into Pez dispenser factories, and return to the states with duffel bags filled to the brim with Pez designs unavailable in the US. He was a boon to the local Pez heads, and the bane of “the Pezident”, the CEO of Pez North America. Mixing talking heads, archival footage (Pez conventions, Ahoy!), and Noir-Thriller reenactments, The Pez Outlaw stands head-and-shoulders above your general documentary feature.
Like most of you, I am familiar with Georges Simenon’s character, Jules Maigret. And like most Americans, I am familiar with‘s portrayal 1992 portrayal of the Belgian police detective, as well as Bruno Cremer’s more recent (and in-French) portrayal. Before this year, there were at least three further actors who performed the role, and now has thrown his hat in the ring in a feature film from Patrice LeConte (who, judging from his enthusiastic reception by the largely Francophonic crowd last night, is a Big Name). The first, and perhaps only, question to ask: is another Maigret needed? Not particularly, no, but that’s not to say that the film didn’t work on every level required. Most impressively, Depardieu managed to melt into the role, so that after my first observation, “Ah-hah, there he is: Gérard Depardieu”, I soon only saw Maigret. No small feat (indeed, no small Depardieu). Do you like psychological-who-dunnits? Do you like post-war Paris ambience? Do you like brief moments of levity mixed in with humanistic themes? Do you like PBS’ “Mystery!”? LeConte and Depardieu’s take on this classic, charismatic, and meditative character was made for a pre-built audience, and will not disappoint them.
7/27: Happer’s Comet
Another sweep another time, perhaps, for‘s liminal feature. At 62 dialogue-free minutes (aside from occasional television or automated phone voices), Happer’s Comet feels both briefer and longer than the run time. Small snippets of experiences, moods, rendezvous, and waiting periods take place over the course of one night during Covid lock-down. An overnight mechanic feels inspired, eventually, to do some push-ups when listening to a song on the radio. A young man dolls up in the dark. An older fellow—lean but muscular—takes a moment to choose a shirt before heading out to practice something in secret. Plenty of people roller blade and roller skate, and plenty end up in a nearby corn field to make-out in the darkness. Taormina’s latest is more video essay than narrative, but his sense of humor still crops up. Around two-thirds through the film, we spend some time with an exhausted man driving a car while on the cusp of falling asleep. A current user review on IMDb, “Enjoyed the atmosphere… Nothing else.” I want to say, as a compliment, that this might be a perfect film to fall asleep to.
Hansan: Rising Dragon
With this rip-roaring history lesson, I found myself dropped into the middle film of an epic period trilogy set in-and-around Korea during the late 16th-century. Within minutes, I did not mind my disorientation. Really cool intrigue was going on, really great costumes burst out in every corner of the screen, and once the boat stuff started, I was floored (and, by that point, actually had largely figured out which ornately-dressed side was which). This film is stylistically similar to Gettysburg: historical reenactment, inclusion of (theorized) human drama, and frequent character name notices on-screen. Hansan has a far grander scale, and explodes with as much with ship-to-ship combat as you can squeeze into the Straits of Gyonnaeryang. Highly recommended, especially to anyone with even just a passing interest in the phrase “16th-century naval battles.” I have purposely not included a screen capture with ships because you’ll want to see those BIG.
Week two: it’s gone, gone, gone. Local observation: the pigeons hereabouts are fat, fearless, and frequent.