All posts by Giles Edwards

Film major & would-be writer. 6'3".

366 UNDERGROUND: SPIDER MITES OF JESUS, THE DIRTWOMAN DOCUMENTARY (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Jerry Williams

FEATURING: Donnie “Dirtwoman” Corker

PLOT: Contemporaries reminisce about the life and times of Donnie Corker, a Richmond, Virginia institution and cult figure in the LGBT community.

Still from Spider Mites of Jesus: the Dirtwoman Documentary (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While Donnie Corker lived his life like a John Waters movie, Spider Mites of Jesus is your standard “talking heads” documentary.

COMMENTS: I feel like I need to have my brain hosed down. Having been accused of having an almost Victorian prudishness, perhaps I should have exercised some caution before volunteering to cover this new film, Spider Mites of Jesus: the Dirtwoman Documentary. The title stems from the subject’s mother misspeaking Donnie’s childhood diagnosis of “spinal meningitis”, and whether from this disease or other inner compunctions, Donnie Corker led a life that left a big-honkin’ (300+ pound) mark on his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. I had never heard of “Dirtwoman” until now, but judging from Williams’ film, Donnie was a well-known (and well-loved) fixture of the LGBT community in central Virginia.

Born on some mean streets in 1951, Donnie spent much of his life being big. He was a big guy with a big mouth and a big penchant for being a loud and proud cross-dresser. Facing countless problems throughout young adulthood—picked on for being mentally disabled, picked on for being gay, and even being raped at the age of 13 by a group of men—Donnie’s story is a hybrid of uplifting defiance and deeply unsettling tragedy. In his heyday, he’d proudly walk the streets looking to turn tricks, protect his neighbors by defusing tense criminal encounters, and was even relied on by the local cops as a street smart guy who kept his ear to the ground.

Spider Mites of Jesus covers all of this and a bit more through the typical “person in front of camera” method coupled with interview footage of the drag queen himself (or, “herself”; the pronoun shuffles back and forth throughout depending upon who’s talking). To flesh out “Why It Won’t Make the List”, it wasn’t all fun and games. Donnie got his moniker from an encounter with the cops when he defecated in the back seat of their car, ostensibly throwing the result at one of them (though anecdotal evidence about that last bit seems contradictory). His performances as a dancer and what-have-you could be stomach-turning for many normals. It was this notoriety that led to him to be featured in a GWAR music video, having (perhaps) been sexually involved with Dave Brockie (group founder and Richmond native). Donnie’s life ended slowly, unpleasantly, and tragically, and this documentary doesn’t shy away from the clinical ickiness involved.

But it’s all done with earnestness and love. Not everyone interviewed is terribly interesting, and some of their little stories go nowhere, but it’s cute to watch them all nonetheless. My life hasn’t changed, and I’m not too troubled I never managed to meet this far-out individual, but Spider Mites of Jesus is a pleasant reminder that it takes all sorts to make a world, and without the outcasts and weirdos, proceedings on this plane would be a damn sight more tedious. R.I.P., Donnie.

Spider Mites of Jesus: The Dirtwoman Documentary home page

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a solid documentary about an outstanding eccentric…”–Carl F. Gauze, Ink 19 (festival screening)

CAPSULE: RUBEN BRANDT, COLLECTOR (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Milorad Krstic

FEATURING: Voices of Iván Kamarás, Gabriella Hámori, Zalán Makranczi

PLOT: Ruben Brandt is a psychiatrist for a group of skilled art thieves who show their appreciation by stealing thirteen masterpieces in an effort to help their therapist conquer his nightmares.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ruben Brandt, Collector is weird, in a way, but not the way we’re looking for, and not the way you might expect.

COMMENTS: It begins with a heist gone wrong: Mimi (Gabriella Hámori) has been hired to steal a priceless diamond from the Louvre, but gets distracted by a beautiful Egyptian hand-fan halfway through the job. The ensuing chase through downtown Paris with Detective Kowalski (Zalán Makranczi) in pursuit is cleverer and better paced than most anything in modern action films. Dreams pile in references to the classics as Ruben Brandt (Iván Kamarás) copes with ever-worsening nightmares. Mafioso scumbags are dying to break into the art market, and there’s a “Cold War Café” frequented by ex-CIA and KGB spooks. The big-hearted looters assembled by Brandt include a thief with an overeating problem who is also handily (and literally) two-dimensional. The Art-Deco/Cubist world of Ruben Brandt, Collector is nothing short of amazing to look at.

But there is an issue looming over all of this: is this hyper-stylized, incredibly erudite cartoon weird? Every frame is arranged for maximum impact, and the tips-of-the-hat to famous artworks are innumerable. (Well, perhaps not innumerable: the end credits indicate that over fifty pieces are explicitly referenced within the movie, in addition to the ten or so nods to movies ranging from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Rambo: First Blood.) It is an odd and beautiful movie to behold, but the script compromises the atmosphere, making it feel at times as if it’s intended for a child audience. “Humorous” exchanges between the characters and the closing heist sequence are reminiscent of cartoons I’ve watched with my young niece. Still, I was happy to just sit back and soak in the glorious visual feast before me.

This imbalance is forgivable, and also makes perfect sense: Milorad Krstic is first and foremost a painter. By branching out into narrative cinema, he proves he can carry a visual motif for a whole movie. He also has an ear for music, with unlikely rock classics (like Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs’ “L’il Red Riding Hood”) and novel pop covers (Haley Reinhart’s version of “Oops, I Did It Again” turns it into a cabaret classic) augmenting Collector‘s off-kilter alternate reality. If Krstic ever pairs his work with a compelling script, we’d be certain to have the animated film of the decade on our hands.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an action thriller as surreal as it is familiar.”–Jared Mobarak, Buffalo Vibe (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: RHINOCEROS (1974)

DIRECTED BY: Tom O’Horgan

FEATURING: , , Zero Mostel

PLOT: Stanley is an alcoholic accountant. Everyone else turns into a rhinoceros.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: O’Horgan’s adaptation of an absurdist play features too much stagey kookiness to work well as a film—which is a pity, because it has a weird premise that, when the tone is right, shows the potential it had as an unsettling commentary on the nature of man.

COMMENTS: Before ascending to the lofty heights of film criticism, I led a something of an artistically minimal life between college and my first reader-submitted review. So it is with a long-stretched arm that I reach back to my school days of Theater Drama, particularly when I was an assistant director my senior year of high school. Through early college I occasionally partook in what Tom O’Horgan described as “a ritualized version of a piece of art”, both offstage and on it. I bring you this somewhat long-winded reminiscence so that you may believe when I say: “theater” and “film” are two entirely different beasts.

As an adaptation of an absurdist bit of theater, the fine points of Hippopotamus‘ plot are inconsequential. Indeed, my summary above could probably be trimmed by a word or two. That said, I regret to inform you even the incredible talent of Gene Wilder on screen fails to compensate for the scattershot approach O’Horgan takes off of it. Half of it is too stagey—with an unfortunate tilt toward “zany”—which compromises Rhinoceros in two ways. First, the handful of scenes of rhino-related destruction and transformation come across as, “Look at how off-the-wall and Damn-the-conventions we are!” Second, Rhinoceros is only a comedy in the same way that Waiting for Godot is: the small snippets of absurd humor are only there to (thinly) paper over the underlying message about the dispiriting pointlessness of life.

On occasion, though, O’Horgan manages to hit the right tone. A scene with Stanley, Gene Wilder’s character, slinking—late—into the office after a discussion about Race, Religion, Capitalism, and Other Topics Found In Plays, crescendos into some buffoonery. It is immediately followed by a haunting interlude where Stanley leaves a subway car, elbowing past faceless masses, passed by faceless pedestrians and workers as he walks the streets. They aren’t actually faceless, they just have hats, buckets, anything covering them. Like the guilty revelers after a crazy party, they shun others’ gazes as they realize the epidemic’s magnitude: who will be next? This is echoed in an altogether strange hallway walk through fear, hitting an apex with a dream sequence/musical number that finds Stanley in a zoo cage as his work-crush cavorts with his friend.

Rhinoceros is almost saved by the presence of Gene Wilder. He seems to be the only one who got the memo that this project was being recorded on film as a movie. As the scene demands, he has a subtlety of expression, a softness of tenor, or a naturalistic reaction to the absurdness around him. If O’Horgan had grasped this need for understatement, the movie would have been a Certifiable genius piece of work. As it stands, the viewer can only hope for snippets of unnerving pathos littered sparsely through a big dish of hammy excess.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…not ideal film material, being an example of the kind of theater of the absurd that should be played like old-time farce within a stylized, three-sided set or, perhaps, within no set at all. Even though the film never shows us any real rhinoceroses, the realism of the movie camera is undeniable. It reduces things absurd to the status of the merely silly.” –Vincent Canby, New York Times (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: HAGAZUSSA (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lukas Feigelfeld

FEATURING: Aleksandra Cwen, Claudia Martini, Tanja Petrovsky, Celina Peter, Haymon Maria Buttinger

PLOT: An orphaned goatherd exacts revenge on her village before succumbing to her own dark fate.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The sensation left by this brooding contemplation on mystic solitude and the effects of cruelty renders it a far cry from typical supernatural horror. It is a stunning example of the genre of Eldritch Dread. For the briefest of moments I was on the fence about this movie’s viability as an Apocrypha candidate, but after some thought I can attest it is well within the scope of such an honor—though I’m relieved this came to our attention after the Canon had closed and the possibility of hundreds more films opened up.

COMMENTS: If the prospect of watching long, meditative shots and hearing only some few dozen lines of dialogue over the course of one-hundred minutes discourages you, perhaps you should stop reading right now. Lukas Feigelfeld’s debut Hagazussa begins on a lonely alp, runs its course on a lonely alp, and finishes abruptly on a lonely alp. Like the slow muffling of snowfall, the patient viewer will find the film’s subtle accumulations result in something profoundly rewarding.

From our opening glimpse, we can imagine the entire childhood of young Albrun (Celina Peter), living alone with her mother in a high-mountain cabin tending to a herd of goats. The few locals all fear Albrun’s mother (Claudia Martini), a fear that even Albrun develops when her mother is stricken physically, then mentally, by a grotesque disease. Grown up and now completely alone, the adult Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen) keeps no company other than her own infant daughter, acquired by means unknown. She is surprised when a local peasant defends her against the taunts of some idle lads, and seems on the cusp of reaching out to the rest of humanity, when her naivety is betrayed.

Very rarely do I approve of films relying on “atmosphere” to carry them, but Hagazussa has the advantage of drawing its quiet intensity from a handful of sources. The unearthly quavering drone of MMMD (a cryptic duet whose music has been described as “Chamber Doom”) grabs your ear right from the start. The score is appropriately minimalistic, limited in tone as well as deployment, which heightens the effect of its eerie nature wonderfully. The harsh beauty of the mountain setting complements its sparseness. Scenes are typically covered in snow, or rain, or lake water, with long shots cutting between the extreme closeups of the characters.

Which brings me to Aleksandra Cwen. With such little dialogue and exposition, we rely on her to convey the sense, if not the exact nature, of what is going on, and her face and eyes do a marvelous job. This triangle of haunting sound, haunting backdrop, and such a haunting face carries the viewer through a fragile, minimalist narrative amazingly well.

Be advised, anyone who plans on streaming this through Amazon: there is no subtitle option, only closed captioning. In other words, you can either have no subtitles, or all the subtitles, with every musical, sound, and even non-sound1)Never before have I seen a notice spring up (and spring up so often) in closed captioning stating, “No Audio”; but then, Hagazussa has a lot more silence in it than most movies. cue brought to your attention alongside the dialogue. Despite having watched it with continual captions, Hagazussa still managed to enchant me with its measured disquietude.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If last year’s standout psychedelic genre piece ‘Mandy’ was lysergic cinema par excellence, this equally trippy (if otherwise very different) quasi-horror revenge tale offers a nightmare soaked in psilocybin, its every element queasily organic.”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (festival screening)

References   [ + ]

1. Never before have I seen a notice spring up (and spring up so often) in closed captioning stating, “No Audio”; but then, Hagazussa has a lot more silence in it than most movies.

CAPSULE: THE TEXTURE OF FALLING (2018)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Maria Allred

FEATURING: Julie Webb, Patrick Green, Maria Allred, Benjamin Farmer

PLOT: Some millennials with plenty of time and money skirt around different affairs with each other before it’s revealed that we’re watching a movie about some millennials with plenty of time and money who skirt around having different affairs with each other.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It pitches itself as “unlike any film that you’ve ever seen”. That is true: never have I seen something so bold in its combination of earnest pretentiousness and skull-sagging tedium.

COMMENTS: Recent experience suggests that among today’s millennialist youth, the trend of making movies that end up being about making movies is growing. Perhaps the would-be artistes grew up watching them and thought, erroneously, “That looks easy. I bet I can make something that impressive.” Flustered as I am at this moment, I just had the horrible realization that I wish I had just re-watched Paris Is Us instead of this one—and trust you me, I am fully aware of the ramifications of that errant thought.

The drama begins in Portland, Oregon—definitely not Seattle, Washington. Louisa (Julie Webb) is an aspiring film-maker and “love-skeptic” who finds herself, against her will, falling for quiet-but-blandly-hot pianist-composer, Luke (Patrick Green). In a parallel story, not-so-happy-with-his-wife Mike (Benjamin Farmer), an architect, is beginning a bondage-lite affair with a woman whose character was so hard to pin down I can only confidently refer to her by the descriptor “Blondie” (Maria Allred). As love chatter goes back and forth and up and down, each of the leads makes various compromises (?) and claws blindly toward an actual plot.

On at least two occasions I wrote in my notebook, “Big question: is this going anywhere?” And this was twice during a movie lasting a blip of an hour and a quarter. While watching various characters I had absolutely no interest in putz around and make emotional and social idiots of themselves, I was nearly relieved to find that I was watching one of them there “movie” movies. Turns out Louisa is writing a script, and lifting her lines from her interactions with Luke. But wait! No, it turns out that she’s actually fallen for the moody pianist (who is married, with children) on whom she’s basing a character. But wait! Louisa is just the role played by a character who seems to be an assistant to the real driving force behind this mess.

Maria Allred: I understand that making a movie is a very difficult undertaking. Furthermore, that your credits list includes, but is not limited to, director, writer, editor, producer, costumes, casting, designer, and art department forces me, despite my complete dismissiveness, to give you some respect. But perhaps you should take on a lighter workload next time. The Texture of Falling is, technically, a well put-together movie. But it is, almost objectively, a boring mass of bad dialogue, superfluous meta-twists, and somnolent acting. If your next Kick-Starter1)Kickstarter was mentioned on no fewer than 3 occasions. campaign is for a movie with an actual plot, consider me on the hook for at least a one-hundred dollar donation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“How are these people connected? What’s real and what’s fantasy? But again, I run the risk of giving the impression that The Texture of Falling is compelling, which it is not. It’s 74 minutes of mediocre actors giving meek, low-energy performances while reciting clumsily written, faux-philosophical dialogue.” –Eric D. Schneider, Portland Mercury (contemporaneous)

References   [ + ]

1. Kickstarter was mentioned on no fewer than 3 occasions.

CAPSULE: THE BURIAL OF KOJO (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Sam Blitz Bazawule

FEATURING: Cynthia Dankwa, Joseph Otisiman, Kobina Amissah-Sam, Mamley Djangmah, Ama Abebrese

PLOT: With the help of a sacred bird, Esi  races to free her father Kojo after a suspicious fall into a mineshaft.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Burial of Kojo seamlessly combines elements of cinematic neo-realism and narrative magical realism: it’s a fantastical story that isn’t weird so much as beautifully told.

COMMENTS: The Burial of Kujo is an allegorical tale told as a meta-meta-narrative: a story delivered as a story about a storyteller. Sam “Blitz” Bazawule weaves together disparate stylistic threads to craft an inspiring vision about loss, of both family and of history, and wonder. Its simple cinematic magic pins the action in a realm that is both of this world, and of the next; as explained by the story-teller, “where the earth meets the sky and everyone stands upside-down.” It is like a reflection in a lake: what you see is not so much real as an undulating facsimile of gritty reality in the distorting purity of clear water.

Kojo (Joseph Otsiman) is a dreamer, and a man on the run from his own guilt. Having moved from the city to a mystical lake-town on stilts, he meets his new love Ama (Mamley Djangmah), but cannot find consistent happiness with her. His daughter, Esi (Cynthia Dankwa), is an enchanting girl born in the lake-enclosed town. But something haunts Kojo, and that something starts haunting Esi’s dreams. In Esi’s visions, a sinister crow pursues a blessed bird that is left with her for safekeeping by a blind visitor. When Kojo is pulled back into the city by a visitation from his brother, his destiny begins to unfold as the tragedy he fled comes back to the fore.

Using magical realism as the film’s lens is a perfect way to frame this uplifting tragedy, a tale told through the eyes of a young girl. Lyrical camera work, with simple tricks like picture inversion over moving water or “realist dream” sequences, adds a desirable degree of separation between what is seen and what is real. Esi’s encounter with the blind visitor, who inexplicably finds his way by boat to the island town, anchors the film’s pervading mysticism, and in so doing gives the girl the power she needs to navigate her way through what is in essence a sorrowful story about the death of a broken man who is touched by nature’s spirits and his people’s mythology.

It is no spoiler to reveal that Kojo is fated to die from the outset: that reveal is provided right in the title. The narrator is a obviously a grown woman looking back on her early childhood memories. But The Burial of Kojo continues to surprise at every turn. Using the style of traditional African legends, Buzawule imparts bitter-sweet wonders through his young protagonist. And throughout the film he pulls off the impressive stunt of including social commentary without brazen moralizing. The Burial of Kojo is one of the better movies to denied an official space on the list: its exclusion should not be interpreted as a reason to forego its wondrousness.

The Burial of Kojo is streaming exclusively on Netflix for the time being.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a visionary fable drenched with vibrancy and lyricism… As grounded in reality as it is informed by outright fantasy, ‘The Burial of Kojo’ is deceptively simple, unfolding in the soothing, singsong manner of a child’s fragmentary dream, but containing within it myriad truths about an Africa where economic exploitation and co­lo­ni­al­ism have taken on new forms and accents.”–Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MFKZ (2017)

Recommended

Mutafukaz

ムタフカズ

DIRECTED BY: Shôjirô Nishimi, Guillaume “Run” Renard

FEATURING: Voices of Kenn Michael, Vince Staples, Michael Chiklis, Dino Andrade, Giancarlo Esposito, RZA (English-language dub)

PLOT: Angelino leads a dead-end existence with his flaming-skulled roommate Vinz in a city without hope until a truck accident leads to some freaky superpowers and crazy violence against an unstoppable invasion.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Because there’s no other home for a Jhonen Vasquez/Ralph Bakshi-style mash-up from the studio that brought us Tekkonkinkreet in alliance with some subversive Frenchies.

COMMENTS: Through some twist of fate, 2019 has been shaping up to be “The Year of the French Film” for me. Whether bearing witness to psycho-dream bombast, bracing myself against existenti-o-action chicanery, or enduring millennialist tedium, I have fallen quite firmly into a pulsating realm of Gallic sensibilities. Add to these titles something offbeat, exciting, and abbreviated: MFKZ. Before diving into the creamy center of this review, let me first assert the following: I am not, and have never been, on the pay-roll of Canal+, StudioCanal, or Société des Cinéromans. To paraphrase a famous North-of-France poet, I was neither born French nor achieved Frenchness, but somehow seem to have had Frenchness thrust upon me.

Having managed to hold down his pizza delivery job for almost three weeks, Angelino is forced to hand in his delivery scooter after getting smashed a bit by an oncoming truck. What distracted him? Why, the lovely Luna, who shows up in his life just enough to screw it up. Not that he needs any help with that. He’s constantly in fear of the omnipresent psycho gangs, he’s two months behind in his rent for his crummy apartment (though at least the cockroaches are friendly), his roommate and best friend Vinz (Vince Staples) is even less employed than he is (possibly owing to the fact that his head is a flame-crowned skull), and his other friend is a conspiracy-theory-spouting spaz of a cat (or something). Still, after a bad headache from his concussion and a nasty encounter with S.W.A.T.-y police goons, things start looking up as he discovers he’s suddenly got powers of strength, speed, and stamina quite beyond the norm. Good thing, too, because ‘Lino and his pals uncover a sinister plan from outer space.

For some reason I feel compelled to preemptively defend the “Recommended” label. I didn’t feel this way while watching it—it was an absolute hoot, combining lots of neato visual gimmicks (the high-speed chase by some “Men In Black” guys pursuing a hijacked ice cream van is a great bit, mixing gritty Bakshi with Grand Theft Auto), clever visual references (keep an eye out for “El Topo‘s” bodega), and recurring sci-fi/noir craziness that kept me elated throughout. The plot-line is just about as ridiculous as you can have without becoming incomprehensible, and the protagonists are wedged seamlessly into their urban milieu. And there’s a Shakespeare-spouting mega-thug, voiced by none other than RZA. But I digress.

I’ve read a number of reviews for MFKZ, and most of them are pretty down on the whole thing. This might simply be a case of a love-it/hate-it divide, with the majority falling in the latter category, but I’m almost certain I detected an undercurrent of sneering dismissiveness. MFKZ is full of life: never-say-die heroes, never-seem-to-die villains, and never-have-I-seen-such-detail backdrops. Nishimi and Renard have together created a beautifully realized genre classic: slacker-everyman saves the world and oh yeah, there are a bunch of tentacle monsters.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Any film encompassing Nazi-punching lucha libre wrestlers and top secret moonbases should by rights be huge fun, but even Renard finds himself conceding, ‘What the F*** is Going On?’ in a mid-film graphic. Enjoyment will depend on a tolerance for that randomness teenagers apparently find hilarious.”–Mike McCahill, The Guardian (contemporaneous)