Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO (2007)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hideaki Itô, Yūsuke Iseya, Kōichi Satō, Kaori Momoi, Yoshino Kimura, Masanobu Andô,

PLOT: A nameless gunman rides into a town where two rival gangs of samurai scheme to find and seize a hidden cache of gold.

Still from Sukiyaki Western Django (2007)

COMMENTS: A hawk grabs a snake in its talons and flies off into a painted sunset. A man wrapped in a Navajo blanket (Quentin Tarantino) rolls onto his back, shoots the bird out of the sky, catches the snake as it falls, and in one swift motion uses a knife to slit the body and remove a bloody egg from the serpent’s neck. While he’s absorbed in that operation, three Japanese gunslingers get the drop on him. Tarantino, using a fake Western accent, then describes a rivalry between the red Heike and the white Genji clans, as he slips into an even weirder take on a cowpoke with a southern drawl mimicking a Japanese accent. Not surprisingly, the nameless man turns the tables on the three interlopers and kills them all, without breaking the egg.

This opening suggests a level of stylized surrealism that Sukiyaki Western Django doesn’t quite maintain. Tarantino’s character is not the non sequitur narrator he initially appears to be, and the rest of the movie generally takes a more straightforward tone. Essentially, it’s a series of spaghetti Western archetypes, clichés, and homages—a Man with No Name, a hidden cache of treasure, a weapon stashed in a coffin—wrapped in a gimmick: the action all takes place in a mythical version of feudal Japan where desperadoes pack both six-shooters and katanas. In the strangest directorial decision, the Japanese cast delivers their cowboy dialogue (“you gonna come at me… or whistle ‘Dixie’?”) entirely in heavily accented English (learned phonetically, in most cases).  Because the actors’ English pronunciation ranges from passable to difficult to understand to nearly incomprehensible, this odd, distancing choice will be an insurmountable barrier for some.

If you can clear the dialogue bar, the rest of Sukiyaki‘s recipe will be familiar to Miike fans: fast-paced action, absurd comic violence, heavy doses of morphing style, and throwaway bits of surrealism. Holes are blown through torsos, through which crossbow bolts are then fired; bright flashback scenes are graded toward the extreme yellow and green ends of the spectrum; babies are found curled up in hybridized roses. We also learn that, in old West saloons, samurai were fond of interpretive dance performances scored to didgeridoos. All this nonsense leads to a heart-pounding, if hackneyed, finale that proves the old maxim that the more important a character is to the plot, the more bullets they can take without dying. After the gunsmoke clears from the village-sized battlefield, a silly closing epilogue will make Spaghetti Western fans groan.

Tarantino’s involvement in Sukiyaki is a testament to the mutual admiration between he and Miike, and it’s noteworthy that his role here comes five years before his own revisionist take on Spaghetti Westerns in 2012’s Django Unchained. As for Miike, in some ways Sukiyaki marks the beginning of the winding down of his weird movie period; his next major work seen in the West was the excellent but entirely realistic Thirteen Assassins (2010), and since 2015 has been spending more time on Japanese television series aimed at elementary school girls than on making weird cinema.

In 2020, MVD visual released Sukiyaki Western Django on Blu-ray for the first time (in the North American market). All of the extras—a 50-minute “making of” featurette, six minutes of deleted scenes, and a series of clips and promos—are also found on the 2008 DVD. The one thing that makes this release special is the inclusion of the extended cut that played at the Venice Film Festival and in Japanese theaters. The box cover claims this extended cut is 159:57 minutes long—a typo for 1:59:57, as the cut clocks in at almost exactly two hours. There are no significant differences between the two versions; Miike simply snipped away insignificant bits from many once-longer scenes, resulting in a shorter, faster-paced, and improved film. (A detalied list of the differences can be found at the always-excellent movie-censorship.com).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…utterly deranged homage to westerns all’italia… dialogue is delivered in phonetic English so weirdly cadenced that self-conciously cliched lines like ‘a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’ approach surreal poetry.”–Maitland McDonagh, TV Guide

CAPSULE: COMA (2019)

Recommended

Koma

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DIRECTED BY: Nikita Argunov

FEATURING: Rinal Mukhametov, Lyubov Aksyonova,

PLOT: Viktor awakens in his apartment to find the walls decaying in reverse and a strange cavalcade of architectural wonders dotting the skyline at improbable angles; then, he finds himself on the run from giant monsters.

COMMENTS: The title gives away the gimmick, and I knew it did—but I didn’t care. Even before we see our protagonist try and fail to obtain his bearings when he awakens in his apartment, we’re smacked with a beautiful show of some top-notch, wonderfully creative CGI buildings making up a future city whose center is graced with what looks like a modern reimagining of the Monument to the Third International. St. Basil‘s architectural motifs round out the metropolis. What is Coma? It’s a Dark City/Inception knock-off, sure, but a vodka-drenched one. And it’s all the more entertaining for it.

Viktor (Rinal Mukhametov), we eventually learn, was in a car crash while fleeing out-of-focus assailants. In Coma-land, Viktor immediately has to flee all-too-menacingly in-focus monsters: tall, thin-limbed beasts made of an ever-flowing inky substance catch sight of him as he exits his apartment. Just in the nick of time, a grizzled gang of survivors spots him and hoofs him out of trouble. There’s Phantom, the cynical soldier; there’s Fly, the female healer. Back at the survivor’s camp—reached via a multiplanar, but very stationary, bus wreck—there’s Yal, the older leader guy and… many more. Why did Yal send out his crack squad to get this ungainly beardo? We learn through exposition, montage, and a Moment of Trial.

The dismissiveness you may have detected here is meant as no more than gentle ribbing. Coma does a number of things incredibly well, not the least of which was keep my rapt attention throughout. Disregarding the (fairly) serviceable story and the (not too terribly) cardboard characters, we are left with a ceaselessly interesting vista of interconnected, odd-angled planes: different memories, we are told, of different inhabitants of Coma-land. They’re connected by wisps of ground; or not, as Viktor learns when he has to run straight down a pier to jump up into a piazza looming above. Firefights in this realm give “death from above” new meaning. And when our hero—an architect—learns how to use his special gift, things get even cooler.

The explanation provided for all this fantasy undermines the narrative while building its intellectual merits. I shan’t reveal the reveal, but suffice it to say, (movie) science has an explanation for all the goings-on, and it seems we may be bearing witness to one man’s pursuit of immortality. This being a Russian film, I cannot help veering into some sociopolitical observation. Viktor, in his waking life, seems to have been an idiot savant, an architect ahead of his time who was led to believe he could go on to create great, new things. As Yal makes very clear: in modern day Russia, change is only possible in your dreams.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Surreal, engaging, and philosophical, Coma’s creativity designs action around any possibility while debating life’s reality.”–Matt Paprocki, Do-Blu.com (Blu-ray)

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 9/18/2020 BEYOND FEST ADDENDUM

This notice came in too late to make the regular column, but we thought we’d add it.

FILM FESTIVALS – Beyond Fest (Montclair, CA, 10/2-10/8):

Films are being screened exclusively at the Mission Tiki Drive-in. Please note that many of these showings are already sold out. At this writing, there are still tickets for one film we’ll be keeping track of in the near future: and ‘s latest head trip, Synchronic.

Beyond Fest official site.

Beyond Fest 2020

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: THE LOOSE ENDS.

A roundup of less-weird but still notable genre films screening at this year’s digital-only Fantasia Film Festival. If the descriptions intrigue you, look out for these in the coming months (given the current climate, most likely as digital rentals or streaming options).

Yummy: Lars Damoiseaux’ debut feature is the inspirational story of a young medical school drop-out who bravely overcomes his fear of blood…

Nah. It’s actually a zombie/Resident Evil rehash brimming to the gills with Eurotrash sensibilities. (It even has a “Chazz“-archetype character featured prominently.) The hospital-based zombie party is kicked off by a visit of a young woman, her boyfriend, and her mother heading to a skeezy Eastern European hospital so she can get breast reduction surgery (she complains of a bad back and difficulty running, though the hooting and ogling of all passers-by en route to the facility suggest another motive). Once there, surprise surprise, things are not all that they seem…

In festivals prior, I’ve been told that for many filmmakers, horror movies are a reliable ticket into the field: they’re generally inexpensive to make and attract investors because they invariably recoup their money. Yummy is a nice, diverting bit of fun and gore, with at least two “firsts” as far as I know: a character loses his penis by fire extinguisher, and a surgeon jams his arm into a high-powered shredder to stop an infection. Walking into this at your local stream-a-plex, you will know exactly what you’re getting into, and won’t be disappointed.

Sanzaru: Filipino mysticism and Southern Gothic collide in Xia Magnus’ tale of creepy, creepy family history. Magnus manages to make the wide open spaces of Texas non-existent, setting all the action in her contemplative tale of ghosts and memories at one remote ranch. Evelyn is the live-in Filipina aid to aging and decrepifying Texan matriarch, Dena, who is suffering from dementia, and prone to fits of shouting at an unseen assailant in the wee hours of the night. Evelyn hears these disturbances, among other cryptic and unsettling sounds, on the house’s room-to-room intercom system.

Sanzaru gets plenty of bonus points for atmosphere, which goes a long way to make up for the lack of focus. The Texas family’s backstory is fascinating, and deeply unsettling once fully revealed, and Continue reading FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: THE LOOSE ENDS.

CAPSULE: THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT (2018)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Sioban Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, , Jeremy Davies

PLOT: Jack (Dillon), an architect–and prolific serial killer–recounts several examples of his “work” and philosophy as Verge (Ganz) leads him on a journey to Hell.

COMMENTS: Due to controversial films like The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark, and Antichrist, among others, Lars von Trier was already considered ‘problematic’ even before his infamous press faux pas at Cannes at the time of Melancholia‘s release. So it’s an interesting conundrum that, in light of his behavior over the years, his work is intellectually engaging and appears (my impression) to have a strong moral center at its core. Jack is much the same. At its Cannes premiere, it gained notoriety when over a hundred audience members walked out during the screening, as well as for for the ten minute standing ovation it received from the remaining audience when it ended.

Originally conceived by von Trier with co-writer Jenle Hallund as an eight-part television series, Jack is a treatise on serial killers and the culture of fascination regarding them. Jack sees murder as an art and himself as amongst the greatest of artists, as he argues to Verge (i.e. Virgil, the poet of “The Aeneid” and guide from “The Divine Comedy”) on their journey. He justifies himself and his acts by pointing  up examples in Nature (the Tyger and the Lamb; the “noble rot”) and Art (poetry of Blake, and the films of one Lars VonTrier).

Despite adopting the non de plume “Mr. Sophistication,” Jack, as portrayed Matt Dillon, is not the Hannibal Lecter type of cultured romantic one ends up liking despite his horrible acts. The film makes clear that Jack is a liar (not a good liar either), and not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, but gets away with his horrible acts because he uses his entitlement and privilege to full advantage. People overlook his behavior until it’s far too late. He acts so obnoxiously that some who might bring him to justice get annoyed and brush him off.  He’s abetted by the naiveté  and obliviousness of his victims, and everyone else; as he yells out of an intended victim’s apartment window, “Nobody wants to help!”

Despite this “success,” Jack’s flaws eventually catch up with him. For all of his lofty pretensions as an “artist” and creator, Jack is unable to complete any sort of life-positive project. His attempts at building a house for himself end in a Sisyphean cycle of frustration; the only structure he succeeds at is a grisly sculpture made from the corpses of his victims, which serves as his literal entrance into Hell. Despite Jack’s spirited arguments and defenses on their journey, Verge isn’t buying any of Jack’s b.s. As he remarks, he’s “heard it all and there’s very little that would surprise him” at this point. Jack’s ultimate fate, likewise, is no surprise at all, though he still thinks there’s a chance he can beat the House. He learns the hard way that the House always wins.

The House that Jack Built is a bleak look at an empty soul in an empty world. It’s also very funny, among the darkest of dark comedies.

Scream Factory released Jack in a 2-disc Blu-ray set in early 2020. It includes the standard theatrical cut, and the unrated cut that played in selected theaters for one night only. Extras includes von Trier’s introduction to the unrated cut and an interview with the director conducted by University of Copenhagen Associate Professor Peter Schepelern.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As the film progresses into its last stretches, it proves itself to be bizarrely satisfying, recontextualizing itself into something much grander in sadness and scope.”–Matt Cipolla, Film Monthly (Blu-ray)

FANTASIA FESTIVAL 2020: HANGOVER CAPSULE: DINNER IN AMERICA (2020)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Adam Rehmeier

FEATURING: , Emily Skeggs

PLOT: Simon, the incognito frontman of the hyper-underground punk group “Psy-Ops”, is low on cash and on the run for arson charges when he has a meet-cute with a hyper-medicated superfan named Patty.

COMMENTSDinner in America is about as quirky a movie as I’d ever dare to recommend on this website. It’s a romantic comedy at heart, with strangely sweet romance and often savage comedy. It’s apt, also, that I write this review while hungover (or as hungover as a teetotaler can hope to be). The driving force and fury behind Dinner in America is one of the most punk of rockers ever to emerge from upper-class suburbia.

Don’t tell Victor (Kyle Gallner, with the mien of a latter day Thomas Howard) that I know his secret background, otherwise he’d smack me upside the head with a metal bat and then light fire to my house. We follow his journey from being a drug tester (where we see his first dinner, on which he loses his lunch) to a smitten jail-bird as he escapes from one scrape after another, spouting enough rage to power a small abattoir. The leading lady, Patty (a truly fascinating Emily Skeggs), is so far down the rabbit-hole of “manic pixie dream girl” that she’s on five different medications to have the merest veneer of normal. She is obsessed with “John Q. Public,” the lead singer of a punk band that’s so underground that their front man is on the run both from the law and from his privileged background.

The simmering rage in Dinner in America is hard to process: every character we encounter comes from a comfortable suburban background. However, as the story progresses, we learn that life’s edges are only smoothed over by money, ranch homes, and pre-fab gourmet dinners. There’s more than a hint of Teorema to be found, as Victor enters the lives of several strangers and immediately takes an axe to their civilized pretenses. In his first visit, he manages to seduce the mother, unhinge the daughter, and absolutely infuriate the racist father before smashing through their bay window and setting fire to their lawn. At dinner with Patty’s family, he adopts the guise of the son of missionaries and in the process liberates a household so weighed down by cyclical tedium that its patriarch is overwhelmed by the “heat” of unspiced beef.

Dinner In America‘s tone is best explained by the presence of Ben Stiller as the first-credited producer. (There’s even a nod to his Royal Tenenbaums character: of the long menu of jerks in this movie, the two worst are these upper-class track and field prats who are only seen out of their pristine track suits when Victor gets one up on them with a metal bat and a dead cat.) And the spirit of Syd Vicious lives on in the fractured singer, who only finds purpose in the form of hyper-weird, hyper-innocent Patty. Like the line from the track those two cut in his folks’ (mansion’s) basement, this is a sweet film in the “Fuck ’em all but us” vein.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the best, and weirdest, rom-com in years.”–Joey Keough, Vague Visages (festival screening) [link requires subscription]

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: GILES WATCHES CARTOONS

“Circo Animato” 2020 program

Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

For a well-deserved break from reality, instead I spent my Sunday morning enjoying thirteen cartoon shorts from around the world.

“The Spinning Top” – dir. by Shiva Momtahen

An ornately told tale from Iran about an enthusiastic child who ends up trading his ability to sing and shout for a spinning top. The animation is distinctly non-Western, and beautiful. The little boy in question travels within an  ever-shifting frame of stylized flowers as he encounters the quilt man, pool man, and the salt man. The up tempo feel is brought down to earth when the salt man takes away the boy’s youthful vigor, leaving only the memories within the top.

“Kkum” – dir. by Kim Kang-min

This is the only foam-imation I’ve ever seen, and accompanying the weird look achieved by animating its weird narrative about a young man who is protected by his mother’s dreams with polystyrene. Four dreams in particular–“Fire,” “Insect,” “Pumpkin,” and “Corpse”–are highlighted, each heavily symbolic and lovingly rendered in Styrofoam. The short ends with the mother advising her son (grown, with wife and child) not to go out that day; the grateful lad thanks the heavens for the meticulous fence his mother has constructed around him.

“There Were Four of Us” – dir. by Cassie Shao

By a whisker, this was the strangest short of the crop—both to listen to, and to look at. The sound is purposely muted, as if one is listening to the dialogue (actually, mostly monologues) through a telephone propped against an old tape recorder. The visual element, however, practically shouts from the screen. What is going on here? There are too many clues, too many things going on, to be certain; the final shot suggests a hospital. And the garbled vocal exposition suggests a mental one, at Continue reading FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: GILES WATCHES CARTOONS