Category Archives: List Candidates

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SHE IS CONANN (2023)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Claire Duburcq, Christa Théret, Sandra Parfait, , Nathalie Richard,

PLOT: Waking in the afterlife, Conann the barbarian recalls various stages of her life, and her relationship with the dog-faced demon who guides her destiny.

Still from She Is Conann (2023)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: She Is Conann lives up to its high weird premise—six gender-flipped incarnations of pulp hero Conan(n) the Barbarian—and then some. At this point, it seems likely that anything Mandico sets his hand to will merit candidacy.

COMMENTS: Bertand Mandico loves women. He cast women in all the male roles for The Wild Boys, then set his sophomore feature After Blue on an all-female planet, and now creates a distaff version of Robert E. Howard’s pulp warrior. There are a tiny number roles in Conann; the only major one is played by a female (and at least one female character is played by a male). Mandico also could be accused of having (or exploiting) a lesbian fetish, although it seems the main reason his women have sex with other women is because there aren’t many men around. But there isn’t much sex in Conann (although there is some graphic kissing). Mandico’s casting of actresses in typically male roles has become his auteurial signature, analogous to the non-acting that populated ‘ early movies. The feminine skew is simply part of his worldview.

Conann is essentially an anthology film, a fragmented hero’s journey, with each individual incarnation of the barbarian capable of standing alone: most kill the previous decade’s Conann, directly or indirectly, before embarking on their own story. The first two Conanns inhabit what is basically a high fantasy world, though one where the all-female barbarian tribes wear modified gorilla costumes with wicked nipple hooks. But the story expands after that, seeing Conann take a job as a contemporary stuntwoman, then a fascist officer, and then finally as a post-apocalyptic patroness of the arts. Conann’s character changes—you could argue she becomes increasingly barbaric—but what really ties everything together is Elina Löwensohn‘s demonic Rainier, who strides through the film nudging an obscure prophecy along, frequently taking flash photographs of Conann’s exploits for posterity. Her dog mask is surprisingly effective, leaving room for her eyes to hint at some sinister intelligence, but muzzling her overall expressiveness so that he/she remains mysterious.

The movie plays out entirely on indoor theatrical sets—mist-shrouded barbarian wildernesses, a sleazy urban snake pit where a wall of Conann’s apartment hangs in the air unfinished, a tin-foil-lined Hell. Shot mostly in black and white, it occasionally shifts to soft, faded color. There is an unusual amount of squirm-inducing (though black and white) gore, and more than one example of the ultimate act of barbarity, cannibalism. These elements distance the film from the tasteful art-house circuit, while the experimental plot and portentous dialogue (“You’ve killed Europe! You can’t do that!”) alienates the average genre audience member. In his “incoherent” manner, Mandico discombobulates the viewer between masculine and feminine, monochrome and color, melodrama and farce, art and trash. For most, his technique is off-putting; for us, it’s invigorating,

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The lo-fi production design is often wondrous, the midnight-movie vibe is fetching, but the film is ultimately probably too much of a good/weird thing to sustain its running time — although, for the French writer-director’s fans, such excess is the key to his success.”–Tim Grierson, Screen Daily (festival screening)

She Is Conann
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APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: QUANTUM COWBOYS (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Geoff Marslett

FEATURING: Kiowa Gordon, John Way, Lily Gladstone, Patrick Page, , , Alex Cox

PLOT: After three years in prison, Frank reunites with his pal Bruno to affirm that a murdered musician is alive; meanwhile, Colfax and Depew pursue increasingly desperate measures to remove themselves from a simultaneously occurring time-loop.

Still from Quantum Cowboys (2022)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Good times, looping and otherwise, await the viewer in this multivariously-animated adventure, with its scattered reality monitored by an all-observant supernatural entity, his recording crew—and his cat.

COMMENTSQuantum Cowboys plays like the fun-time menace of The Endless fused with the philosophizing of  Waking Life, with a story unfolding in the late 19th-century Arizona Territory. If that comparison doesn’t do it for you, I got others. While director Geoff Marslett hasn’t made a wholly new phenomenon, in the manner of igneous rock spewed from cinema’s core, he has through precedent and pressure forged a metamorphic rock, squeezing genres, tropes, and ideas into a film different from what has come before. And all its inner weirdness is coated with such easygoing charm that only upon reflection does the viewer realize a whole lot of odd stuff just happened.

Four layers of narrative interact and interlay as Quantum Cowboys unfolds. A pair of nobodies—sly Frank and honest Bruno (Kiowa Gordon and John Way)—shovel horse droppings as a band plays to a small crowd at the opening of a railway station. Mischief leads to tragedy when a US Marshall pursuing Frank for petty robbery shoots the band leader. Meanwhile, the traveling salesmen Colfax and Depew (David Arquette and Frank Mosley, the latter looking like a dead-ringer for a younger version of the former) attempt to make bank by importing ideas from the future to sell to the past. Looming in the background is the charmingly earthy Linde, whose ambitions include land acquisition by way of matrimony with a white man. Looming over everything is Memory, who attempts to fuse these various observed paths into a coherent, single reality.

Frank is our reluctant hero, pulled into the time travel nonsense triggered by Colfax and Depew, our reluctant villains. Frank didn’t experience personal growth during a three-year prison stint for robbery, but his release, and the unlikely events immediately following, set him on a path toward maturity—but one that can only conclude happily if he can engineer an outcome that doesn’t leave everybody dead. Scattered amidst his journey are plenty of alt-country music luminaries (such as Neko Case), as well as Alex Cox as a preacher only somewhat anchored to any given timeline. Bruno, with his simple outlook and honorable ways, gives Frank—and the film—a focal point; Frank needs his friend for direction, and his friend needs someone to direct.

I could easily tell that everyone involved had a good time, from the the sanguine trio serving as Memory’s recording crew to the multi-roled John Doe, who has no time for the other John Doe’s tuneless musicianship and coolly shoots up John Doe’s tavern to silence an unpleasant cacophony. Geoff Marslett and co-writer Howe Gelb (an Arizona-born singer-songwriter) let their animation team do their thing, making for a visual style that’s a coherent variation on being everywhere at once. The music rocks with a twang, the performers ooze charm, and the action gyrates to a delightful finale of friendship triumphing over obsession. As Linde observes the day after her nuptials, “Nothing’s meant to be. Especially this.” Quantum Cowboys probably shouldn’t exist, but, thankfully, here it is for our enjoyment.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“May I be the first to crown Quantum Cowboys the new king of the psychedelic western? Visually it beats El Topo to the draw. It makes your brain slide further across the theater floor than Greaser’s Palace.” — Michael Talbot-Haynes, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE BEGUILED (1971)

DIRECTED BY: Don Siegel

FEATURING: Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Hartman, Jo Ann Harris, Mae Mercer, Pamelyn Ferdin

PLOT: A wounded Northern soldier finds himself in an isolated girls’ school in the South during the Civil War; he attempts to take advantage of the women’s sexual attraction to him as they nurse him back to health. 

Still from the beguiled (1971)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The Beguiled is stealthily weird, with a fundamental story about men who dominate and women who hold their own concealed beneath layers of other Hollywood genres, including the war film, the captive romance, and most notably, the star vehicle. The Beguiled never lets you get settled, indulging expectations and then subverting them so that you’re never really sure what kind of story you’ve signed onto.

COMMENTS: 1971 was an extraordinary year in the careers of Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood. With two successes under their belts, they would celebrate Christmas with their collaboration on the hyperviolent, hypermasculine Dirty Harry. Only a couple months prior, Eastwood would make his directorial debut with Play Misty For Me, a tale of a disc jockey who has to fend off the advances of a obsessive fan. (Siegel shows up there in a cameo as a bartender.) But before any of that, another Siegel-Eastwood partnership hit the screen with the Gothic sexual suspense tale The Beguiled. It’s tempting to look for commonalities; all three feature malevolent forces trying to kill Eastwood. He triumphs over his foes in two out of three instances. See if you can guess which one bombed at the box office.

The director and star would forever blame poor marketing for the film’s failure (Eastwood would not work with Universal Studios again for decades), but The Beguiled traffics in a quiet Gothic horror that would be a tough sell even with the best campaign. Although the setting is a Louisiana plantation serving as a girls’ finishing school, it might as well be on an island in the void. We never see beyond the thick woods that surround the property, and the only signs of life beyond the mansion are the downtrodden soldiers who stagger past as they contemplate sating their carnal impulses before returning to the war and their likely demise. Dreadful augurs abound, from the raven tied up on the balcony to the deadly mushrooms that grow beneath the trees. You’re not being paranoid when there’s danger all around you.

It’s fair to wonder if either of the two men most responsible for The Beguiled ever actually understood what it was about. Siegel claimed the film was about “the basic desire of women to castrate men,” while Eastwood defensively observed that his audiences rejected the film because they instinctively side with characters who are winners. Neither man seems to have recognized that while Cpl. John “McB” McBurney’s instincts run toward self-preservation, he takes a villainous tack in order to secure his safety. We learn very quickly that McB is by no means a good guy. He forces a kiss on young Amy, declaring that 12 is “old enough.” He lies to Martha about his high Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE BEGUILED (1971)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: KATERNICA (2023)

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DIRECTED BY: James Edward Newton

FEATURING: Fran St Clair, Paul Richards, Annabella Rich, Anna Fraser, Tony Mardon

PLOT: A theater student discovers a forgotten one-act play; its production triggers mysterious disturbances in the lives of both her sister, an aspiring actress, and a washed-up thespian attempting to resurrect his career.

Still from Katernica (2023)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Alarming theatrics—both narrative and cinematic—couple with puzzling body horror, resulting in a baffling and unnerving foray into the improbably verité realm of stage-on-screen.

COMMENTS: Fill me in out-of-focus nougat, dip me in close-up chocolate syrup, and call me an Art House Bar. Katernica is a film about a play about madness, and it could only fall deeper into somber-sweet pretension if it were French instead of British. But mysteriously, this languidly jumpy beast keeps your interest. The characters are broadly relatable and interesting; the coat hanger plot frame holding up the story is quirky; and there’s an undercurrent (and over-current) of something strange—and even more so, it introduces one of the most bizarre characters I’ve ever seen on screen.

With a cast of five, everyone’s at least a little bit interesting. Esther shows an academic’s pluck in decrypting an obscure little play. Her sister Eve fascinates with a mysterious pregnancy and similarly mysterious emotional history. Jerry elicits both sympathy and disdain as a washed-up director. The doctor (named, I should tell you, “Katernica”) turns the knob from coldly unpleasant Eastern Eurotrash archetype to something neat to behold. These four are the main movers and shakers in the story, ticking events forward to a mid-film bit of nastiness and the final scene: a monologue delivered at Art House amped to eleven.

But then there’s Mister Case. This guy… the only (admittedly poor) comparison I can make is to the post-encounter Edgar from Men In Black. We first hear him, painfully expressing the importance of saving Eve’s baby, then see him in a blurry close-up. With every line of dialogue, with every movement, it looks as if he wants to rip out of this suit of human skin that so obviously pains him. He has a very shadowy ambition (which comprises the second of the two interesting and weird things about Katernica), and enlists the aid of the doctor—and the unwitting aid of the pregnant actress. As both a role and a performance, Mister Case is unfailingly, and fascinatingly, creepy.

Katernica has its shortcomings. From my modest encounters with theater, I know that Katernica is accurate—but I simultaneously feel that as a genre it’s best avoided on film. But, of course, sometimes a little rough-cut gem happens. James Edward Newton, the director and co-writer, puts before us something both flashily mundane and obscurely menacing—not unlike an unlabeled box of mixed confectionery.

Katernica [Blu-ray]
  • A mysterious play envelops the lives of an ambitious drama student, her actor sister, and a washed-up director in a surreal nightmare.

 

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: DEATH POWDER (1986)

Desu Pawuka

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Shigeru Izumiya

FEATURING: Takichi Inukai, Rikako Murakami, Shigeru Izumiya, Mari Natsuki, Kiyoshirô Imawano

PLOT: In a robot’s dying moments, it spews out a mysterious dust that bounty hunter Kiyoshi inhales, causing his body to undergo drastic physical changes and sending him on a terrifying mental journey.

Still from Death Powder (1986)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Death Powder manages to stretch out a visual bouillabaisse to an hour, cramming into a short block of time all of the trippy imagery and body horror that anyone could want. It may be considered a forebear to the “New Flesh” genre, but it easily stands on its own merits as a twisted piece of cinema.

COMMENTS: There are a lot of things a movie can do to catch our attention here, but one surefire way to get us to consider a film for the List is to dispense with the niceties of filmmaking—e.g. discernible plot, delineated characters, visual clarity—but pay them just enough lip service to let the viewer know that they’re going out the window. The first 20 minutes of Death Powder deftly accomplish this, teasing out a proto-neo-Tokyo in which leather-clad, fedora-wearing private contractors chase down robots in a city drenched in neon and rain, like a stepping stone between Blade Runner and Akira. Until Kiyoshi’s hand falls off, that is, at which point Death Powder becomes something very different indeed.

Once he is infected with the titular substance, Kiyoshi can see all, including the impending arrival of the strangely defaced mafia called the Scar People that employs him. He also flashes back to a sort of origin story, a jarring and hilarious jump to what is essentially a rock-star/scientist’s product launch. There’s an immediate change in tone as the robot’s inventor comes leaping in wailing on an electric guitar while the robot—bearing the ominous name “Guernica”—smiles and delivers her personal stats. Kiyoshi also undergoes physical changes, like a grotesquely misshapen face, as well as the sudden ability to punch a man in the face so hard that his head explodes.

Death Powder brings to mind the Greg Bear story Blood Music, in which a man injects himself with self-aware nanoprobes and unwittingly instigates a global biological singularity, as much as it does 1980s Japanese cyberpunk. Guernica speaks to Kiyoshi in his head, making it clear that she intends to propagate herself, and that this is just the beginning. Sure enough, when a group of hitmen arrive, artsy images of maggoty innards and liquid-drenched monster masks convey their demise. It’s not hard to imagine that all of Tokyo will soon join them in an enormous writhing blob.

The copy of Death Powder that I watched (twice, in an effort to make sense of the thing) was dark and muddy, but having seen other clips and stills from the production, I think that’s how it’s meant to be. The film looks like it’s been shot equally on film and video; the good Dr. Loo’s infomercial features classic video toaster effects, and a fight scene includes a character kicking an inset box. But the lo-fi elements only end up adding to the film’s charm. There’s something tight and compact about Izuyima’s vision, how readily he conveys a physiological disaster brought about by technological hubris. This is a movie with the wisdom to get in, confuse and horrify, and get out in a tight hour, with a jaunty saloon singalong to send you on your freaked-out way.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a bizarre and barely comprehensible one-hour short… surreal to the point of madness… ” – James Belmont, AnOther Magazine

(This movie was nominated for review by Charlie. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)