All posts by Giles Edwards

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

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)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BORDER (2018)

Gräns

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ali Abbasi

FEATURING: Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Jörgen Thorsson, Ann Petrén, Sten Ljunggren

PLOT: Tina is a Swedish customs officer with a super-human ability to detect when travelers are hiding something; her monotonous existence is upended when she meets Vore, who is hiding something far stranger than mere contraband.

Still from Border (2018)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Ali Abbasi’s film unflinchingly depicts “the other” in a low-key manner that forces the viewer to constantly question how well they can handle those who are very different from them. The mounting discomfort breaks mid-way through a reveal that is as surprising as it is relieving.

COMMENTS: Working for a site such as this, one often (and, indeed, hopefully) stumbles across strange and unsettling things that one cannot un-see. The carnage of Greenaway’s chamber drama; the nightmare of Lynch’s take on parenthood; or the sheer unpleasantness of von Trier’s rumination on couples going through a rough patch: all grab the viewer with an aural and visual assault through a strange, strange lens. With Border, director Ali Abbasi joins this crew of unrelenting visionaries. For its first half, his film defies categorization; for its second half, it pulls the viewer into a fairy-tale macabre whose supernatural elements are belied by their matter-of-fact depiction.

Tina (Eva Melander) is ugly, anti-social, awkward, but undeniably skilled at her job. With an almost feral sniff at passersby, she is able to determine if they are carrying something dangerous or illegal across the border into Sweden. Being able to sense shame, guilt, and a gamut of other emotions, she spots underage boozers, would-be traffickers, and even a well-heeled traveler with something dreadful on a hidden memory card. When a comparably ugly, antisocial, and awkward man (Eero Milonoff) passes her post, she knows something is “wrong” about him, but a thorough search of his luggage (and his person) reveals nothing. She’s never failed before, and feels compelled to learn more about this mysterious man. While aiding the authorities in breaking up a child pornography ring, she bonds with this stranger and ultimately learns two unsettling truths.

Without giving much more away, I felt a very strange sense of relief after the big reveal. The first hour of Border goes by without any explanation for the uncomfortable goings-on: uncomfortable for someone like me, at least. The continuous kind of “normalcy” on display became very trying, and my sense of comparative ease when Abbasi finally showed his hand made me wonder: would this movie have been better without that release valve? As it stands, it is a very good, and very strange, viewing experience. Had he gone completely without explanation, it would have been a much more difficult movie to watch, but perhaps a much more salient one. Having been pushed to the edge of an uncomfortable frisson, the pull-back allowed me to think of it more cinematically; and I was able to then better view it for its narrative and thematic merits. In the end, Border‘s greatest achievement is providing the viewer with a believable, optimistic finish to its strange tale of deformity, love, and human cruelty.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The strangeness in this film writhes like bacteria.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BETWEEN WORLDS (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Maria Pulera

FEATURING: Nicolas Cage, , Penelope Mitchell, Garrett Clayton, Gwendolyn Mulamba

PLOT: Joe, a down-on-his-luck trucker, drives Julie to the hospital to visit her comatose daughter, Billie; when he helps Julie travel to the “other side” so she can guide her daughter’s soul back to this world, the spirit of Joe’s dead wife takes the opportunity to hijack Billie’s body.

Still from Between Worlds (2018)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Twin Peaks, Washington meets Small Town, Alabama in a heart-warming-turns-disturbing tale featuring a possessed teenage girl and a frazzled Nicolas Cage-as-truck-driver who has a history of reading the erotic remembrances of… Nicolas Cage.

COMMENTS: When Maria Pulera watched “Twin Peaks” while growing up, I’m sure she said to herself, “I can do that.” And so she does, with the great Nicolas Cage front and center (and the great Angelo Badalamenti noodling musically in the background). Cage’s performance as a burnt-out trucker plays like a B-side to his Mandy animalism; and while I wouldn’t say he goes off the deep end, he’s about as close as any realistic scenario might allow. At least as realistic as the “dead-wife’s-soul-steals-comatose-girl’s-body” plotline can be expected to be. Everything comes crashing together in an Alabama melodrama ripped from a ’90s-drenched Tales from the Crypt episode, culminating in something altogether bizarre.

Pity poor Joe (Nicolas Cage). We meet him, boot-first, as he’s trying to convince his boss that he’ll get his truck payment settled next month. No dice, the truck is to be repossessed, and Joe, with his mountain of worry, takes comfort in a gas station foot-long. Hearing strange thumps from the restroom, he charges in and beats down a man strangling a woman. The woman, another trucker named Julie (Franka Potente—yes, that one) is nonplussed at this ostensible rescue, as she was trying to meet up with her daughter’s soul. Joe can’t help but try to do the right thing, so he drives her to the hospital where her daughter, Billie (Penelope Mitchell), rests coma-style. His spiritual baggage comes with him, unfortunately, so when Julie tries again to reach her daughter, Joe’s dead wife uses the opportunity to sneak back into this world.

Between Worlds‘ first act plays as a bizarre resurrection of Nicolas Cage’s more lamentable ’90s comedy stylings as funneled through a David Lynch fan-girl’s love letter to them both. I suspect (hope) virtually none of you have heard of (and, even less, sat through) the 1994 rom-com It Could Happen to You, but I was having flashbacks to Cage’s cop character, but now having been dragged through the ringer after losing his wife and daughter in a fire and forced to wash “NoDoz” down by the mouthful with swigs of whiskey. The sweet, lovey-dovey first act where Joe bonds with Julie goes by quickly, in its oddball way, before the reality of the situation sinks in that this isn’t a romantic comedy.

Frankly, I had a great time watching this1)Others didn’t. Amazon’s display of Between Worlds shows a 2.5-star rating for the Prime Video, a 4-star rating for the Blu-ray, and a 1-star rating for the DVD., and the expression I had on my face by the end confirmed my suspicion that what I was watching, though perhaps derivative, was quite strange. A smooth jazz score keeps prodding you (like in “Twin Peaks”), creepy evil is made manifest through possession (like in “Twin Peaks”), and there’s even a bad boy Bobby Briggs character (like in…). If you don’t like Cage, you will not like this movie; but if you do like Cage, then I recommend you hop in your truck and take a spin through Maria Pulera’s Alabama.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you saw ‘Mandy,’ and wished more Nicolas Cage movies were dark, weird, and personal: watch ‘Between Worlds’ and be careful what you wish for.” –Simon Abrams, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

References   [ + ]

1. Others didn’t. Amazon’s display of Between Worlds shows a 2.5-star rating for the Prime Video, a 4-star rating for the Blu-ray, and a 1-star rating for the DVD.

CAPSULE: BLUE MOVIE (1971)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Wim Verstappen

FEATURING: Hugo Metsers, Helmert Woudenberg, Carry Tefsen, Ursula Blauth, Kees Brusse

PLOT: Michael has just been released from prison and has been advised to stay on the straight-and-narrow, but finding himself in an apartment block teeming with sexually precocious women is making that difficult.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Blue Movie has all the characteristics of a standard studio film: a straightforward narrative, technical proficiency, and rather good acting. And plenty of sex. We at 366 do not consider sex to be weird.

COMMENTS: A colleague described Blue Movie to me as “basically a porno” — which I assure you was not the reason I volunteered to review it. From my history of watching low-rent “giallo” pictures, I’m used to the threat of nude elements (and the accompanying threat of lilting synth music). That said, I was happily surprised by Wim Verstappen’s notorious picture, and found that while it largely failed in a pornographic sense, it succeeded handily as a quirky romantic comedy.

The story begins with Michael (Hugo Metsers) as he is released from prison for a sexual offense, having enjoyed himself carnally with a fifteen-year-old girl some five years earlier. His parole officer, Eddie (Helmert Woudenberg), is keen to have his ward integrate into society, arranging for an apartment, lining up a job interview, and vetting some of his new neighbors to find a “nice young woman from a good family.” When Michael moves into his new apartment, he immediately finds distraction in the form of the countless married (and open-minded) housewives who live along the same corridor. After some shenanigans, Michael, in his way, begins to start a new life professionally, arranging a big block party while launching his sex service syndicate.

Blue Movie made quite a splash at the time of its release, resulting in a lot of hand-wringing on the part of more upright Dutch (and international) citizens. Large chunks of the movie are, indeed, akin to softcore pornography, but as much as possible, the sex is handled not just tastefully, but also with a refreshing sense of joie-de-vivre. It helps that Michael has a quiet charm that works quickly on his neighbors, and that Eddie is an hilarious foil as the eager-to-please parole officer. When visiting Michael to drop off a bookcase for him, Eddie is concerned that Michael might be up some sexual mischief. He is right to be, as Mrs Cohn (neighbor, and wife of the famed zoologist next door) sneaks around the apartment’s periphery in a well-executed bit of rom-com foolishness.

The whole movie has a light and breezy tone that simultaneously shows off a lot of pro-sexual sex alongside social commentary (“All of Amsterdam is like this”) and playful subversion. Blue Movie also flirts with a tiny bit of weirdness in the continual, cheeky musical cues that toy with the audience. Teasingly suggesting a bit of impending smut, more often than not a light synth tune hearkens nothing beyond cutesy comedy. By subverting this expectation, Blue Movie goes a long way to normalize the idea that sex, at least in the post-Pill, pre-AIDS world, was something to approach with a smile bordering on a laugh. And by touching on men, women, the gay, the straight, the bisexual, and even the asexual, it attains an open-minded, relaxed feel that modern sex cinema would do well to reemploy. As a film that hovers near the realm of a triple-x rating, Blue Movie is a nice reminder that good movies can have good sex.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The twists that occur while Michael entertains his neighbors are quite predictable, so it is really the blending of the funny and the serious that makes them effective. Also, the film ends with a very bold segment questioning the relationship between sex and love that was almost certainly debated ad nauseam. “–Dr. Svet Atanaov, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: PARIS IS US (2019)

Paris est à nous

DIRECTED BY: Elisabeth Vogler

FEATURING: Noémie Schmidt, Grégoire Isvarine, Marie Mottet, Lou Castel

PLOT: Anna does not go on her boyfriend’s flight that crashes; back in Paris, she becomes increasingly detached from herself and society.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Alhough there are many Canonical titles that, it could be argued, are a bit incomprehensible, they also necessarily have some verve, panache, charming idiosyncrasy, or other stylistic or narrative merit. Paris Is Us is wanting for a purpose to complement its opacity. If you seek aimless ennui worth watching, check out Godard‘s early works instead.

COMMENTS: Two interesting things happened within minutes of each other when I began Paris Is Us. The first was a demonstration of the differences between dubbed dialogue and subtitled dialogue. (For reasons unknown, Netflix defaults to the English-language dub when available for its foreign fare.) The second was my cat hunting my pen as I waited patiently to find something worth writing down. That excitement out of the way (by correcting the audio to play the French-language track and by my cat nestling down to go to sleep next to me), I found myself trapped for the long-haul of a not-particularly-organized (and even less happy) spewing of montage.

Regular readers of my reviews know that this is the “plot” paragraph. There isn’t much more to say beyond the bare-bones description above. (And I’m probably repeating this ruse, now that I think of it.) The few minutes of dialogue in English perhaps skewered the whole viewing experience, as I couldn’t get the whole Frat-bro dialogue out of my mind while the (now) French-speaking twenty-somethings went on ad nauseum about: What if we’re all in a video-game? Isn’t there more to life than money? And can we even do anything about the state of this world that so drives us to European angst? Clattering around these musings were some specific lines that stood out, working at least as spoken in French (I shudder to think of the Frat Bro voice dub), like “I wanted it to create something so I could feel… alive” (in regards to hoping two planes might crash into each other overhead), and “We have something unique. We can’t throw it away” (said in the midst of one of the incessant fights between Anna and Greg).

I admit this is a really lazy review, but I only give the film-makers a qualified apology. Paris Is Us could have been tossed together by any freshman-level film students given cameras and a Parisian backdrop. The first act was long enough to make me dislike the protagonists; the second act stretched one obliquely conveyed tragedy across twenty-odd minutes; and the third act’s only saving grace was the random appearance of the only older character (Lou Castel), an ex-con on his way to visit his daughter’s grave. He has moved on with his life in the face of his double-tragedy, and the young ‘uns in the rest of the movie could do well to learn from his example. The administrator described this as “your oddest gamble” for Oscar week. It was a gamble. I have lost, but you needn’t do so.

Paris Is Us streams exclusively on Netflix (at least for the time being).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Ce qui frappe immédiatement dans PARIS EST À NOUS, c’est son incroyable ambition esthétique. L’équipe du film prouve que la configuration de tournage imposée par son économie de moyen n’est absolument pas un frein à la qualité visuelle du métrage, bien au contraire.” –Aurélien, leblogducinema.com1)I’m keeping this quote in French because, like the movie, it sounds much more complex this way than it actually is.

“…a surreal slog in search of a plot.”–Joel Keller, Decider

References   [ + ]

1. I’m keeping this quote in French because, like the movie, it sounds much more complex this way than it actually is.

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BEST F(R)IENDS, VOLS. 1 & 2 (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Justin MacGregor

FEATURING: Tommy Wiseau, , Kristen Stephenson-Pino

PLOT: After Harvey, a mortician, takes in Jon, a vagrant, the two hatch a scheme to sell golden teeth gleaned from years of cadaver processing; Jon learns the hard way that friendship is more important than money when he double-crosses Harvey.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The first half of Best F(r)iends just about carries its weight with Wiseau weirdness, but the plot twist(s) and the Wiseau-ex-machina in the second half steers the experience well enough into the realm of ridiculous to handily earn its weirdo chops.

COMMENTSOrson Welles and Gregg Toland, Marco Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer: to this auspicious list one must now add Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau. Auteurs often go it alone, but sometimes, it takes the discovery of a cinematic soulmate to join the pantheon of greats. Sestero and Wiseau are not (yet?) there. But with their continued collaborations (beginning with the cult classic The Room), these two dreamers have carved their own niche in the world of weird movies. Best F(r)iends, volumes one and two, exhibits something of a peculiar talent. Having already tackled the “What the…?”, they now prove they can actually maintain a (largely) coherent narrative.

Bloodied and down on his luck, Jon (Sestero) resumes his life begging on the streets of LA while pursued by a garish hearse. Its driver, Harvey (Wiseau), is a mortician with a troubled past and an odd pasttime: collecting the dental discard of the cadavers he magically transforms from damaged bodies into something you could be proud to show off. Harvey tentatively decides to take Jon under his wing, but is soon betrayed when Jon arranges to offload the boxes of gold culled from Harvey’s years of corpse work. Conspiring with his new girlfriend Tracy (Stephenson-Pino), who is not all she seems, Jon ends up murdering Harvey. When things start to go wrong for the lovers, it takes a knight in shining armor to come to the rescue.

Best F(r)iends‘ weirdness crept over me slowly. Put together from untold hours of footage, it really is two volumes in name only: this is Sestero’s epic. Though the first half merely putters along a pathway of somewhat predictable Wiseau Weirdness (I had to give up writing down Harvey’s truisms halfway through), it is the second half that blows down the barrier between quirky and outright weird. While I don’t want to ruin things for Wiseau-philes out there, I will give the hint that my plot wrap-up above is far less metaphorical than you might think.

I won’t get into Wiseau and Sestero’s long and bizarre shared history. Suffice to say, Wiseau is as alien in real life as he seems onscreen and Sestero is only nominally more talented an actor than his Room performance suggests. He is, however, not half-bad as a writer, and Best F(r)iends, improbably, hangs together as a narrative, one that alternately confounds and amuses. Even more unlikely, it somehow turns out to be an emotionally moving film that, while weaving its web of lies and double-crosses, is a compelling meditation on friendship and trust. It is no great monument to film, but Best F(r)iends is still impressively odd, and, more impressively, something you can actually follow.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…director Justin MacGregor certainly plays into the absurdity of the script’s strange premise and twisted plotting. Taken as a whole, the pacing of the experience is a little flabby and unwieldy—partly due, no doubt, to the film having now been split into two volumes—but MacGregor and Sestero seem to have taken cues from David Lynch of all people. There is a pervading sense of surreality to the proceedings, as Daniel Platzman’s score overbearingly plays over montages and scenes that convey more bewildering emotion than they do coherent plot details.”–Leigh Monson, Birth. Movies. Death.