Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: MY HINDU FRIEND (2015)

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DIRECTED BY: Hector Babenco

FEATURING: Willem Dafoe, Maria Fernanda Cândido, Guilherme Weber, Rio Adlakha, Selton Mello

PLOT: Diego Fairman is an Argentinian filmmaker of modest fame whose apparently terminal cancer has prompted him to be a jerk to all of those around him; then again, he’s always been a jerk to those around him.

COMMENTS: Like most of you, I’m a fan of the musician Taco Ockerse and his gold-certified album, “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” The plucky Western German had a smooth crooner’s voice and used his musical talents to drag hits from the mid-20th century into the 1980s’ New Wave. Three such songs featured in Hector Babenco’s My Hindu Friend. That’s not to say they used Taco’s versions, but “Ma Vie En Rose,” “Dancing Cheek to Cheek,” and Singin’ in the Rain form a trifecta of “Why is this song here, now, doing this?” in a movie ripped straight from The Hallmark Channel Presents: Fellini‘s Night of Melodrama.

Babenco presents film a variant of himself, like Fellini did.  Babenco revels in whimsical dream interludes, like Fellini did. Babenco’s movie just sort of trails off at the end, like Fellini’s… (I’ll stop myself before completing that sentence so as to keep the comment hounds at bay.) Suffice it to say, My Hindu Friend is intensely personal: the upshot of which is that those of us who aren’t actually in the movie can merely try to enjoy Willem Dafoe moping around a hospital, moping around a Seattle mansion, and moping around his trendy home in Argentina.

It took over half an hour for me to find what could have possibly brought this on to 366’s radar. After untold days/weeks/months in hospital undergoing a bone-marrow transplant (and a similarly-feeling number of minutes), Diego starts hallucinating Death—who, in a refreshing twist, is just a work-a-day guy who’s having problems with his wife. There’s talk of the afterlife, but no secrets are  revealed; apparently such revelations are above Death’s pay grade. There are discussions about cinema. And, of course, there’s a game of chess—’cause that’s something a film fanatic might hallucinate while weakened to the core and dosed up on morphine.

Morphine. Yes, I would have preferred more morphine shots, as that not only brought forth the affable Death character, but also the only show-stopping scene in My Hindu Friend. In the middle of the night, the heavily-drugged Diego awakens singing a song through his breathing apparatus before removing it and, wonderfully, crooning into it as if it were a microphone. The song going through the dope-addled director’s mind? “Dancing Cheek to Cheek.”

And that titular Hindu friend? A young boy he meets in the infusion room at the hospital during his cancer treatment. The ailing director tells this narrative crutch anecdotes, ultimately living through fantasy stories as he does his best to comfort the eight-year-old whom the cosmos considered deserving of such a terrible fate. I’m rambling at this point, but I blame the movie. Touching, certainly; well-produced, without a doubt; but—well, I think I’m just going to trail off here…

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…told from [Diego’s] perspective, in an alternately surreal, reflective (though never sentimental) fashion with Fellini-esque flights of frank sexuality, eroticism and existential whimsy…”–Jarrod Walker, FilmInc (streaming)

CAPSULE: THE BIG SHAVE (FROM “SCORSESE SHORTS”)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Peter Bernuth

PLOT: What starts out as a pleasant morning shave soon goes horribly wrong, turning into a bloody spectacle of self-mutilation as a man finds himself unable to stop shaving.

COMMENTS: I first saw The Big Shave on YouTube a few years ago, after hearing about American Boy (another film included on Criterion’s new “Scorsese Shorts” collection) via , who used a story from that film as inspiration for the adrenaline injection scene in Pulp Fiction. American Boy, a monologue film featuring Stephen Prince (a friend of Scorsese’s who had played a bit part in his feature film Taxi Driver), showed me that there was a side to Martin Scorsese that I never seen before, and encouraged me to dig deeper into Marty’s back catalog. The Big Shave, a gory allegory about the Vietnam War, is unlike anything else in Scorsese’s filmography, and left a mark on my memory that I’ve never been able to shake. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, The Big Shave, along with American Boy and three other early Scorsese short films, is now available to revisit in gloriously bloody HD.

To most cinephiles these days, Scorsese might seem like an untouchable symbol of classic Hollywood, one of the last quintessential “great” filmmakers, whose new films are treated with solemn reverence and his old films spoken of in hushed tones as some of the greatest of all times. But Mean Streets wasn’t his first foray into filmmaking, not by a long shot. The real story started 10 years earlier, when Scorsese was a film student at NYU. There he made two award-winning student films: What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? and It’s Not Just You, Murray. In a way, these two films reflect a spirit similar to what a lot of young film students were doing at the time. They’re blatantly irreverent and intentionally bizarre, with a gleeful determination to create a new way of making films inspired by the French New Wave.

However, unlike these fairly innocent student short films, The Big Shave doesn’t just set out to toy with the viewer’s mind, it aims to get under their skin, peeling it back to reveal what lies beneath. Had it been made in a different era, any number of meanings might be extracted from it, but seeing that it was a product of the late 1960s, it’s difficult to see it as anything other than a commentary on the self-destructive nature of the US military’s involvement in Vietnam. It even has an alternate title, Viet ‘67—but that might have made it too obvious.

It starts by establishing its setting: a sparkling white bathroom filled with sparkling silver fixtures. The bath faucets, the toilet paper holder, the sink—all are shown in pristine close-ups that establish Continue reading CAPSULE: THE BIG SHAVE (FROM “SCORSESE SHORTS”)

CAPSULE: VAMPIRE BURT’S SERENADE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Ken Roht

FEATURING: Kevin Richardson, Brandon Heitkamp, Sharon Ferguson, Dylan Kenin, Diva Zappa

PLOT: Burlesque stars and drag queens team up to defeat a vampire, singing forgettable songs along the way.

Still from Vampire Burt's Serenade (2020)

COMMENTS: A horror-comedy-musical seems like an easy bet for a moviemaking team on a low budget; the only problem is, great musicals require great music. That isn’t easy to come by. If it lost the lame tunes and focused more on its own craziness, Vampire Burt’s Serenade might have been a better film, although it would distinguish itself less from the crowded camp-horror field.

Who would have guessed that someday Kevin Richardson would be working with even weaker material than he did when he was in the Backstreet Boys? True, he sings well, but given the generic pop-rock beats and uninspired lyrics he has to work with, it’s for naught. Most if the rest of the cast doesn’t even have Richardson’s chops going for them: Diva Zappa singing “Sex Toy” is actually painful to listen to. The lip-syncing is clumsy, too; it’s obvious when the soundtrack switches from live to studio recording, making it difficult to suspend disbelief that the characters are actually spontaneously singing about their desire to stake a vampire through the heart. Only a couple of numbers are memorable: one where a group of drugged ballerinas stagger around singing a nursery-rhyme track (the ladies all affect little girl voices so singing ability isn’t an issue), and a “sultry” number sung by two lovers rendezvousing in a toilet stall (“Here in this scuzzy little toilet/Having such a nice time in this wicked little john… in this crazy insanity/with its lack of any sanity…”) that sticks out because of its obscene absurdity and nonsensical lyrics.

The worldbuilding, too, is half-assed. The action centers around a burlesque cabaret where vampire Burt is well-known to everyone, for reasons never explained; without any real motivation, he bites three main characters in one night, setting his own undoing in motion. In a movie populated entirely by vampires, victims, zombies, strippers, and a drug-dealing snuff performance artist, all of whom sing and dance, it seems odd to complain about a lack of believably. But this universe just doesn’t feel like a place you could live in, and nor does it feel like a delirious dream; instead, it’s just a collection of movie cliches and vampire tropes thrown together as needed to advance the script.

This Rocky Horror wannabe earned a few mildly positive recommendations from the “good try, old chap” school of pat-on-the-back film criticism. If you’re looking for pluses, Richardson is believably douchey, having a ball pwning the haters as the titular coke-snorting bloodsucker; the comedy is sometimes effective (e.g. a running joke about bisexual vampires that’s well-executed, if  obvious); the idea of a vampire who later becomes a zombie is cute; and the finale, with the entire cast coming together in a battle to the death, is bloody and chaotic. I didn’t like Vampire Burt’s Serenade, but I can see someone else liking it as a fast-paced time-waster. Still, it’s nothing to sing about.

It turns out that Vampire Burt’s Serenade is actually a slightly re-edited version of a 2014 movie called Bloody Indulgent. Indulgent runs two minutes longer than Serenade and can still be found on the Amazon channel “Fear Factory,” though the DVDs have been removed from circulation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an unconventional and enjoyable little title.”–Bobby LePire, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TIME WARP: THE GREATEST CULT FILMS OF ALL TIME, VOL 3: COMEDY & CAMP (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Danny Wolf

FEATURING: Joe Dante, John Waters, Illeana Douglas, Kevin Pollak

PLOT: The final installment of a three-part survey of cult films, focusing on comedies and films with a camp sensibility. (Volume 1 is reviewed here, Volume 2 here.)

Still from Time Warp Greatest Cult Movies of All Time Vol. 3: Comedy and Camp

COMMENTS: This omnibus collection of mini-documentaries confronts its most challenging subject matter here in the third act. In the case of comedy, the ability to make audiences laugh is subjective, underappreciated, and difficult to discuss without destroying the very qualities of humor. When it comes to discussing camp, the concept itself carries with it issues of gender, sexuality, race, and power. How would the producers of the Time Warp series address these important, sometimes even incendiary topics?

The answer is: pretty much not at all. Time Warp just wants to have fun and share some rabidly adored films. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But the fact that the filmmakers don’t even want to engage with some of these interesting topics means that the whole enterprise carries about as much weight as “VH-1’s 100 Greatest One Hit Wonders.”

There’s a pretty straightforward recipe for Time Warp’s method: play some clips from a film that took time to find its audience, get some of the movie’s participants to recount tales from the production, throw in some well-chosen clips and a little commentary from talking heads to explain why the film has a devoted following, and let simmer for 10 minutes. Then queue up another movie and do it all again. The panel of hosts clocks in barely 5 minutes of screen time, and offers virtually nothing in the way of analysis, context, or debate. So you just kind of have to trust that the producers have done their best in picking the comedies and camp-fests that best exemplify the label of “greatest cult films of all time.” Clerks? Yeah, I can see that. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls? Yes, I am totally convinced. Super Troopers? Um… sure, I guess.

That said, the list assembled here is pretty entertaining. These actors and directors are genuinely and justifiably proud of their work, and thrilled that it has managed to endure and thrive over the years. Diedrich Bader and Jim Gaffigan tell stories of having their famous lines quoted back to them. B-movie legends Erica Gavin and Mary Woronov offer gleefully unrestrained accounts of the conditions in which their movies were made. Jon Gries (whose name is misspelled in his chyron) is interviewed while holding a noisy parrot, and why not. And it’s a bittersweet surprise to see the late Fred Willard show up. Interspersed with well-chosen clips and some thoughtful commentary from critics and other professionals (gold medal to Amy Nicholson for her explanation as to why John Lazar should have become a legend), Vol. 3 makes a pretty strong case that any one of these films could easily merit its own feature-length documentary.

But it’s hard to be sure what distinguishes this from a video version of a Buzzfeed listicle. As my colleague Terri McSorley noted in reviewing Vol. 2, these selections are pretty anodyne. These 18 films are almost wholly American (only Monty Python and the Holy Grail can legitimately call itself a non-US film), largely recent (more than half are less than 30 years old), and predominantly white (actresses Shondrella Avery and Marcia McBroom and actor/director Jay Chandrasekhar help vary the palette). This roster feels like a good place to start the conversation about cult movies, but hardly the end-all be-all of the form.

Maybe I’m just jaded by the extensive efforts of this website to justify the films we crown. After all, consider the fact that Danny Peary needed three volumes to chronicle 200 films in his “Cult Movies” series, or that Scott Tobias’ New Cult Canon accumulated 130 entries over the course of five years. To spend a decent amount of time with 47 films in less than six hours is really a solid achievement. But it still feels like the format makes it impossible to do much more than pay lip service to a handful of films that have earned passionate devotion, without examining the phenomenon or delving into why these films are such good ambassadors.

I’m including the complete list of films discussed in this volume, with links to our reviews. And it’s possibly instructive to compare our attention to campy vs. funny flicks. Guess a comedy’s got to work really hard to land on our radar.

* Part of the 366 Weird Movies Canon

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Wolf has a more interview-packed chapter to finish with, securing sunnier features to study, closing on a bright note of classic endeavors that provided a sense of danger, delirium, and human insight, brought to life by talented filmmakers. Any chance to spend time with these titles is most welcome.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: “BOOGIEPOP AND OTHERS” (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Yōsuke Hatta, Park Myung Hwan, Norikazu Ishigōoka, Mami Kawano, Hiromichi Matano, Masato Nakazono, Shingo Natsume, Kazuo Nogami, Keiichirō Saitō, Katsuya Shigehara

FEATURING: , Saori Oonishi (original Japanese); Michelle Roja, Morgan Garret (English dub)

PLOT: The spirit known as Boogiepop fights a succession of “enemies of this world.”

Still from Boogiepop and Others (2019)

COMMENTS: If you enjoyed the enigmas of “Boogiepop Phantom” and want to dip deeper into the lore, “Boogiepop and Others” will scratch that itch. You’ll learn more about the Towa Organization, the Manticore, Nagi Kirima, and Boogiepop herself. If you’re looking for an introduction to Boogiepop, however, I’d recommend starting with “Phantom”; the darker and more mysterious presentation in the 2000 series plunges deeper into the franchise’s dark psyche.

Compared to “Phantom,” “Others” is more conventionally structured, although it still hops about in time in a way calculated to disorient newcomers. This eighteen-episode series is split into four separate arcs, with Boogiepop facing off against the Manticore, the Imaginator, rogue psychiatrist Dr. Kisugi, and the King of Distortion.  (Not to mention sub-boss “Spooky E,” who at least has his DJ name already picked out for when he retires from his job manipulating mankind’s evolution for the Towa Organization). This structure gives the series a kind of “villain of the week” quality. The stories mostly center around one particular antagonist’s effects on regular high school students; we also get a sort-of origin story for the series’ namesake in the “Boogiepop at Dawn” arc. “Others” spends time explicitly spelling out mysteries that were left to the viewer to decipher in “Phantom.” Boogiepop is depicted more as a superhero than an enigmatic interloper from some netherworld. There’s a deus ex machina feel to each arc’s resolution, with Boogie hanging in the background, swooping in at the climax to banish another “enemy of this world.” In at least one episode, our shinigami could be accused of kill stealing.

The simplified narrative is, perhaps, an understandable concession, but more disappointing is the fact that the visual look here is completely ordinary. Gone are “Phantom”‘s dark, muted palettes, replaced by sunny skies and colorful toons with big eyes. Boogiepop, once a brooding presence, now has a bright, almost Hanna-Barbera quality to go with her increased verbosity.  (On the plus side, “The King of Distortion” episodes do feature a patchwork kaiju birthed from a kid’s dream, which is a delight.) The immersively strange sound design of “Phantom” is also nowhere to be found.

While it’s difficult to describe a television show as complicated as “Boogiepop” as “dumbed-down,” there can be no doubt that Madhouse’s followup series is less ambitious and artistically inferior to their first take on the character, aimed at an audience more interested in the series’ plot mechanics than its otherworldly mood. Nevertheless, fans of “Phantom” may want to investigate this alternate take for the way it expands your understanding of the universe and the overall plot. There’s still plenty of strangeness to chew on.

Funimation released the entire “Others” series to Blu-ray in 2020. Currently, the entire run of “Boogiepop and Others” is available for online viewing for free at crunchyroll.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Enigmatic, confusing and weird.”–Marianne R., Manga Tokyo (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ESCAPE FROM THE ‘LIBERTY’ CINEMA (1990)

Ucieczka z kina ‘Wolnosc’

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Wojciech Marczewski

FEATURING: Janusz Gajos, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Teresa Marczewska, Piotr Fronczewski, Wladyslaw Kowalski

PLOT: There’s a problem at the Liberty Cinema screening of a new movie, and it isn’t projector or sound issues: the film’s cast has decided to boycott their performance on screen, leaving the head censor nonplussed, particularly as there’s a concurrent outbreak of spontaneous opera singing afflicting the city’s populace.

COMMENTS: The world’s weariest apparatchik is having a bad day. His head is pounding, his hand is cut from a broken drinking glass, his stomach is wrenching after consuming contaminated tap water, his assistant eats cotton candy at a staggering rate despite admonitions otherwise, and his secretary informs him that actors in the film being screened at a local cinema have gotten stroppy and refuse to perform. What is our hero to do? True to his background, he forbids it, categorically: he forbids the theater manager’s sudden singing, he forbids the actors’ boycott, and most emphatically of all, he forbids the eating of cotton candy.

But it’s in vain.

Escape from the ‘Liberty’ Cinema was made and released shortly after the collapse of the Soviet-backed government in Poland, but is set during the bureaucratic death throes of that regime. When news of the screen actors’ rebellion reaches him, the local Communist party boss insists that the film play on—to sold-out shows, no less—but without attendees. “There will be cinema, but no viewers,” because if the Party likes anything, it’s being a bastion of (legitimate) art. If it likes two things, it’s hitting quotas, and so the money for the sold-out shows is extracted from a welfare fund manager who wants a spot on the local Party council. Deterioration—of the buildings, of the social fabric, of the soul—permeates the setting. The city’s denizens are so worn down they can’t even bother to rebel any more, leaving Art to don the mantle of subversion: either through the film’s recalcitrant performers, or the citizen’s spontaneous outbursts of opera, against their will.

Despite its full-throated cynicism, Escape is, somehow, a comedy. Our censor-hero is an eminently relatable character. As he witnesses the district’s descent into art-house subversion, his ailments alleviate, and he even gets in some laughs chatting with the performers on display at the ‘Liberty’. The projectionist practices poor English, seemingly responding to job (or consulate?) interview questions running through his mind as he prepares the reels, again and again, three times a day, to screen for an empty house. The cotton-candy chomping assistant receives elocution lessons from the in-movie movie’s leading lady, eventually wrapping his mouth around the correct pronunciation of, “Give me back the coat!”

Writer/director Marczewski mercilessly skewers authorities—even raising the specter of Poland’s complicity with the Nazis’ genocide—but simultaneously loves each of his film’s characters. I can imagine he may even have written himself in as the wunderkind critic sent from Warsaw. Seated in the front row, this impish boy of a man beams with pride when he shows off “true” cinema (appropriately, Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo) to the Communist functionaries. Beyond even his successful social commentary, Marczewski somehow manages to meld utmost cynicism with tender pathos.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A very clever absurdist comedy that can be enjoyed either with or without its sharp social and political commentary…”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (DVD)

CAPSULE: “BOOGIEPOP PHANTOM” (2000)

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DIRECTED BY: Takashi Watanabe

FEATURING: Voices of Yuu Asakawa, , Rakuto Tochihara (original); Rachael Lillis, Debora Rabbai,  Jessica Calvello (English dub)

PLOT: A Japanese high school is the epicenter of odd events involving a pillar of light, a series of serial killings, and whispers of sightings of the mysterious spirit known as Boogiepop.

Still from "Boogiepop Phantom" (2000)

COMMENTS: Certain features of “Boogiepop Phantom” remind me of “: the limited setting (this time, a Japanese school rather than an insular Northwestern U.S. town); the dark, sometimes soapy melodramatic subplots from a large cast of interconnected characters; possession by supernatural entities that are actually allegorical renderings of psychological traumas. The world of “Boogiepop” is more logical and tightly connected to its fantastical central conceits, however; it lacks the free-floating surrealism and quirky humor of its American cousin. There’s still plenty of weirdness to soak in, though, and enough confusion to keep your mind whirling for a while, trying to sort it all out.

Plotwise, “Boogiepop Phantom” deals with a plague of strange “evolutions” or mutations in Japanese teenagers, including a boy who sees bugs in people’s hearts (and eats them), and another who dresses like a kiddie Pied Piper and causes vulnerable people to disappear by convincing them to revert to childhood. Is “Boogiepop,” an apparition who appears in a  dark billowing cape, tall Cossack hat, and a bizarre starched collar fastened with a yin-yang pin, responsible? Each episode focuses on a different character who plays a part in the saga; each installment jumps about in time, sometimes within the same episode.  The same event may appear in different character’s storylines, and the second occurrence may shed light on the first.

Visually, “Boogiepop”‘s palette is muted, deliberately drab, although frequently filled with bright glowing objects like cellphone screens or magical butterflies. The action is also enclosed in a circular iris that dims into darkness around the edges. This effect makes each episode feel like a faltering memory. Even more notable than the visuals is the sound design: distorted background static and electronic glitches, mysterious chimes, Gregorian chant, with the main theme from “Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” Boogiepop’s signature tune, floating through the entire series. At the end of each episode, a cacophony of overlapping dialogue from the next installment whets your appetite (and furthers your bewilderment).

One time through the series may not be enough to understand what’s going on. I watched the entire thing without ever grasping who “Boogiepop Phantom” was (the name kept appearing in the closing credits as a separate character from Boogiepop herself). It’s particularly challenging to keep track of the large cast of characters, and to figure out how each fits into the whole. If you’re also confused, you may want to supplement your viewing with a quick peek at Wikipedia or other online guides. Or, you could just watch the series a second time, taking notes. This kind of elaborate worldbuilding tends to create a devoted fanbase of decoders, and such is the case with the “Boogiepop” franchise. With its theme of alienated teenagers neglected and betrayed by their parents’ generation, “Boogiepop Phantom” is aimed at bright juveniles, but the artistry of the presentation will draw in adventurous older viewers, as well.

“Boogiepop Phantom” was adapted from a series of light novels by  Kouhei Kadono (the series has fourteen entries; “Phantom” is an original story, but relies om established characters and events from the novels). It was written by Sadayuki Murai (who also wrote the screenplay for Perfect Blue) and produced by Madhouse, who animated all four of ‘s movies, along with many other classic anime series and films.

The Nozomi English-language Blu-ray release features the series’ entire 12-episode run. It includes numerous small extras, like the “clean” openings and closings beloved of anime fans, and, more substantially, an English-language commentary track from a couple of Americans who worked on the dubbed version. (Recommendation: as always, turn off the English dub and listen to the Japanese with subtitles. The English voice acting is uneven.)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I am not going to lie, Boogiepop Phantom is a weird experience… the anime might be dark, atmospheric, strange, and confusing but when you reach the final episode, you end up understanding everything and feel some kind of achievement…”–Marianne R., Manga Tokyo (DVD)