All posts by Gregory J. Smalley (366weirdmovies)

Originally an anonymous encyclopediast who closely guarded his secret identity to prevent his occult enemies from exposing him, a 2010 Freedom of Information Act request revealed that "366weirdmovies" is actually Greg Smalley, a freelance writer and licensed attorney from Louisville, KY. His orientation is listed as "hetero" and his relationship status as "single," but Mr. Smalley's "turn-ons" and "favorite Michael Bay movie" were redacted from the FOIA report. Mr. Smalley is a member of the Online Film Critics Society.

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2021: STRAWBERRY MANSION (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: , Albert Birney

FEATURING: Kentucker Audley, Penny Fuller, Grace Glowicki, Reed Birney, Linas Phillips

PLOT: In the future, dreams are taxed, and when a dream auditor goes to check in on an elderly woman who’s off the grid, he finds himself drawn to dreams that are more free than his own.

Still from Strawberry Mansion (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: With themes reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and a handmade aesthetic straight from The Science of Sleep, Strawberry Mansion is the 2020s American indie version of a turn-of-the-millennium Michel Gondry movie. It may be a tribute, but it’s a worthy trip of its own.

COMMENTS: Dream movies are tricky, and making a dream movie on a low budget is even trickier. Strawberry Mansion addresses these limitations up front. The introductory dream is minimalist: an everyday kitchen, but painted entirely pink, into which comes a friendly visitor bearing a bucket of fried chicken. Throughout the movie, dreams will be conveyed using these types of simple props and sets thrown together in incongruous ways: actors dressed as Halloween-costume frogs (playing saxophones) or mice (in sailor suits); walking shrubs; demons with turquoise light-bulb eyes. Add in the occasional stop-motion animated skeleton or caterpillar to go along with some simple green screen, and you’ve proven that you can convey an otherwordly feel without millions of dollars of CGI.

The second scene addresses the non-budgetary conundrum dream movies face: the cliché of slippage between the waking world and the dream world, and the idea that the audience must be on guard to discriminate between the two. Our hero (a bureaucrat with the Brazil-ish name “Preble”) awakes to find himself craving chicken, and goes to Cap’n Kelly’s drive-thru, where the A.I. clerk tries to sell him a brand new “Chicken Shake.” Chowing down in the parking lot, he has a brief flash-forward hallucination—and that’s it, as far as the old “blurring the lines between dream and reality” bit goes. There is no “real’ world in Strawberry Mansion to confuse with the dream world. The premise of this near-future vision isn’t dystopian science fiction, but light absurdist satire. The very idea of taxes on dreams—dream of a buffalo, and you’re assessed a twenty-five cent bill; dandelions are three cents apiece—is something that would only occur to you in a dream. There’s no narrative confusion about whether we’re in the characters’ dreams or the movie’s reality, and there’s also never any sense that we’re meant to take this cinematic world as more than a dream itself. This dream-inside-a-dream structure frees us up to experience the movie on its own terms, instead of falling into the psychological thriller trap of trying to distinguish what is a dream from what is “really happening.”

As Preble, Audley is rather bland as a slouchy, glum bureaucrat, but that’s by design; his character contrasts with the grandiose poetry of dreams, which go beyond workaday realities. Penny Fuller‘s eccentric Arabella—when he asks her what she does during the intake interview, she describes herself as an “atmosphere creator,” so he jots down “artist” on his form’s “occupation” line—is the sweet but slightly ridiculous woman who will seduce him into a more fulfilling mode of being human. Strawberry Mansion is a manifesto for resisting the numbing effects of modern technology—represented explicitly by advertising—in favor of the playful freedom of imagination. This message is wrapped in a sugary confection about a man and a woman who have a deep but chaste romance based on shared dreams rather than the passions of the physical world. It’s funny, gentle, and filled with funny, gentle dreams to tickle your imagination. It may be the best dream you’ll have this year, and it’s well worth the bill.

Kentucker Audley is best known as an actor in indie circles, but he also founded the website NoBudge, which curates low-budget (and often weird) short films from up-and-coming directors. Audley and co-writer/co-director Albert Birney previously collaborated on the absurdist comedy Silvio (2017), about a gorilla news anchor going through an existential crisis. Strawberry Mansion is inexplicably named after a Philadelphia neighborhood. It debuted at Sundance and already has a distributor (Music Box), so expect to see it available to the general public later this year, by early 2022 by the very latest.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Many will surely find the metaphysical derring-do and aggressive weirdness of Strawberry Mansion too much of an ask, but for those prepared to dive down its nutso rabbit-hole, it offers a divertingly free-wheeling vision.”–Shaun Munro, Flickering Myth (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)

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”

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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)

CAPSULE: MOBY DOC (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Rob Gordon Bralver

FEATURING: Moby,

PLOT: A wandering, essay-style autobiographical documentary by musician Moby, who discusses his career, his alcoholism, and his veganism in a series of sketches that range from comic to philosophical.

Still from Moby Doc (2021)

COMMENTS: “I know we’ve been in a fairly conventional narrative for a while, but now we’re going to go back to being weird,” sings Moby, accompanying himself on banjo, at about the twenty minute mark. We then see him dressed as a Buddhist monk, walking down an L.A. street striking a bowl with a rod while a group in white robes and animal masks follows him. Alternating typical documentary techniques with weirdo tableaux is the method here, but while there is plenty of rambunctious imagination to the sketches, this isn’t quite the “surrealist biographical documentary” it’s pitched as. Moby Doc is not surrealist, although it contains the fleetingly surreal imagery you’d catch in any modern music video. It is, more accurately, a “collagist biographical documentary,” a story that moves logically and chronologically through Moby’s life and career, but proceeds by stitching together scraps of information cast in different styles and textures. Thus, we have Moby monologues, comic psychodramas where miscast New York actors play Moby’s parents, appreciations from David Lynch, career-spanning concert footage, staged therapy sessions, humorous one-way telephone conversations, space shuttle footage, grandiose shots of Moby standing alone atop a majestic mesa, animated bits, a -esque gag where Moby talks to Death, and a tribute to the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” video.

As someone with a casual acquaintance with Moby—a few tracks from “Play,”  downloaded on mp3 a decade after they were recorded, have made it into my rotation, and I knew virtually nothing of the artist behind them—I think this documentary may play better for people like me than for longtime fans. Rabid followers have heard all these stories before (the musician has already published two memoirs), and there’s not much new music here. The quirky presentation, tailored to a cultured rather than a mass audience, means it serves well as an introduction to those of us with a marginal interest in the musician. Well aware that he is aging out of dance floor relevance, Moby seeks to rebrand himself as an elder statesman and Serious Artist: thus, the recent concert footage of orchestral arrangements of his electronica hits.

As candid as Moby is about his hedonistic excesses—the middle section of the film is peppered with unflattering AA-styled confessions, some involving poop—critics point out that parts of his history are whitewashed or ignored (a scandal involving goes unmentioned). Such spin is to be expected in a self-funded vanity project. The bigger issue is how you respond to the narcissist paradox at the film’s core. which may determine how well you like the film (and, by extension, how well you like Moby). He begins the film by announcing he intends to explore nothing less than “the why of everything,” but then, naturally, proceeds to explore nothing more than the why of Moby. He realizes that he is addicted to fame, confessing how bad reviews and “kill yourself” troll comments wound him, and reveals that he aggrandizes his image in order to compensate for feelings of inadequacy. He wants to share universal wisdom—much of it genuine—-with the viewer, but he has enough self-awareness to realize that this mission will inevitably make him look pompous. He compensates with little self-deprecating jokes: when he talks about his music as a form of self-healing, he cuts to a reaction shot of his fake therapist stifling a yawn.

So Moby Doc ultimately becomes a lavish, 90-minute, million dollar humble brag. This could understandably rub some people the wrong way. But I relate to Moby’s dilemma: everyone has something to teach others, everyone has valuable life-lessons to share, but how can we do this without looking presumptuous and egotistical? Comic irony is the go-to strategy, and Moby deploys it as well as he can. So instead of being a recitation of rock-n-roll clichés about an artist seduced by fame, money, and pleasures of the flesh who goes through some shit and comes out the other end rededicated to his Art, Moby Doc is an obfuscational comedy: Pink Floyd the Wall with a sense of humor. And that’s not a bad thing; it’s probably as much profundity as a man who’s lifelong passion is to make music for teenagers to shake their asses to can hope to produce.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a self-portrait, an acid flashback, a therapy session, a rumination, and a surrealist music-video package all rolled into one.”–Owen Gleiberman, Variety (contemporaneous)

NORTH BEND FILM FESTIVAL 2021 FEATURES PART 2: FOUR MORE

The North Bend Film Festival runs through July 18. Online ticketing is available, but is geo-locked to residents of Washington, Oregon or Idaho. In the future, these movies may be available through alternate venues—stay tuned to this website for updates.

Cryptozoo (dir. Dash Shaw) – Of all the films available for online access at North Bend, ‘s Cryptozoo was the one that most caught my attention as a connoisseur of weird cinema. The animator/writer/director of My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea spreads his wings here with an equally absurd and fantastical, but decidedly more R-rated, take on “cryptids” (which in this case means mythological characters like gorgons, unicorns and Pegasuses more than modern legends like Bigfoot and Nessie). Set in the late 1960s, the premise is that these mutations really exist and are traded on the black market, with poorer collectors settling for alkonost feathers, while the ultra-rich enslave the critters themselves. Lauren is an agent who rescues cyptids from their captors and brings them to live at a special zoo/sanctuary run by her wealthy patron Joan. Meanwhile, the U.S. army is also in the cryptid-capturing biz, hoping to weaponize the creatures—especially the dream-eating baku (a creature also referenced Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer), an entity with whom Lauren has a special connection.

Cryptozoo (2021)I hinted that Cryptozoo is more “adult” than High School, a fact that’s immediately apparent from  the pre-title sequence, which includes both full-frontal nudity and unexpected unicorn violence. Human and cryptid players alike will spend much of the third act covered in blood. Shaw’s handmade, hand-animated style is like a series of graphic novel panels strung together, making for a choppy viewing experience that may alienate those accustomed to slick, big-budget Hollywood animation. But the compositions are eminently artistic: a sky full of new constellations, a golden-hued grazing unicorn, a naked woman standing in front of a will-o’-the-wisp light show. There isn’t one big psychedelic sequence like High School‘s drowning, but miniature hallucinations are scattered throughout, like a pink fetal head flopping out of a purple and green egg . There’s even a throwaway dream of storming the capital (only this time, the rioters are hippies bringing in an egalitarian utopia). The well-researched creature designs are fascinating, and you can expect to see most of your favorites (especially if you’re into Greek mythology), as well as many unfamiliar ones. Cryptozoo also features a top-notch collection of voiceover talent (Lake Bell, , , )—but it’s the artwork that dazzles here. Cryptozoo already has a distributor and should be released to theaters later this year—if you’re a fan of trippy animation, you should check it out.

Code Name: Nagasaki (dir. Fredrik Hana, by Fredrik Hana and Marius Continue reading NORTH BEND FILM FESTIVAL 2021 FEATURES PART 2: FOUR MORE