Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: ALL THE COLORS OF GIALLO (2019)

Recommended (recommendation applies to Severin Film’s three disc set, not to the title documentary)

DIRECTED BY: Federico Caddeo

FEATURING: Fabio Melelli, Umberto Lenzi, Lamberto Bava, , , , , Susan Scott, , ,

PLOT: A documentary describing the rise and nature of Italian giallo thrillers of the 60s and 70s, with reflections by many of the original practitioners.

Key art from All the Colors of Giallo (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s purely supplemental material—but a worthy package for those cultivating an interest in this stylish but disreputable genre.

COMMENTS: Standing alone, the competent titular documentary would not be of exceptional interest; it’s the extras that put this three-disc set over. For those who don’t know, giallos were a peculiarly Italian subgenre of film: murder mysteries, typically with very convoluted plots and stylish, dramatic visuals influenced by psychedelic culture. As the genre developed, giallos took advantage of growing cultural permissiveness of the 1970s and became increasingly  exploitative, pushing the censor’s boundaries by including more and more graphic sex and violence. Especially in later films, the plots turned perverse and psychological, dealing with delusional heroines stalked by black-gloved killers. The giallo period in cinema lasted from approximately 1963 (with ‘s The Girl Who Knew Too Much) until the late 1970s/early 1980s, when this  daring “adult” fare was gradually absorbed into dumb, repetitive teen-skewering slashers.

All the Colors of Giallo starts strong, with an overview of the giallo’s roots in sensational crime literature (with trademark yellow covers that gave the genre its name). But the strict chronological format—interviewing to a succession of directors and collaborators in the approximate order they make their appearance on the scene—means the general viewer’s interest starts to flag as the genre itself peters out. The material is presented with the conventional mix of talking heads, poster shots, and illustrative clips (mainly taken from trailers). All the Colors of Giallo does have the virtue of convincing all of the genre’s major contributors to chip in a sound bite or two—and not just the directors and actors, but screenwriters and producers, too. Lucio Fulci even takes time out to get catty about his more celebrated rival Dario Argento, whom he argues is a “great craftsman who thinks he’s an artist” and “a good director” but “a terrible writer.” The lack of professional courtesy there is fun and refreshing.

But it’s only after the documentary ends that the real fun begins, as you dig into the extras. Not to slight a separate short interview with John Martin, editor of the fanzine “The Giallo Pages,” but it’s the “Giallothon”—over four hours of trailers, some rare, covering every major film in the genre—that’s the pick of Disc 1. You watch All the Colors of Giallo to earn your bachelor’s degree; “Giallothon” is research for your doctoral dissertation. It has 82 trailers spanning 20 Continue reading CAPSULE: ALL THE COLORS OF GIALLO (2019)

CAPSULE: THE BEACH BUM (2019)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Snoop Dog, Ilsa Fisher

PLOT: Moondog is a hard-partying hippie celebrity poet living off his past glory and heiress wife’s fortune; when she dies, her will specifies he can’t inherit her millions unless he finishes his long-gestating novel.

Still from The Beach Bum (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Fortunately it’s not weird enough to have to worry about its merits as a film. It’s almost a normal stoner comedy—by Harmony Korine directing Matthew McConaughey standards, at least.

COMMENTS: Matthew McConaughey goes hog wild playing a fantasy version of himself as a perpetually high, holy fool beach bum in Hawaiian shirts and flip-up sunglasses. Topless women love him, for undisclosed reasons. Stray kittens love him, because they don’t know any better. Jimmy Buffet loves him enough to invite him to steal his spotlight. Rich heiresses gladly bankroll his middle-aged slacker lifestyle. Snoop Dogg loves him enough to share his secret stash of Jamaican Christmas Tree dank. Thin Jonah Hill, the Cajun literary agent, loves him, even though he hasn’t made a dime off him in decades. Moondog, the celebrity poet (!) can do no wrong, even when he finally shows up, drunk and high, for his daughter’s wedding in the middle of her vows, then grabs the mike (and the groom’s junk).

In fact, just about the only person in the movie who doesn’t love Moondog is the judge who sentences him to rehab (though even she is a fan of his older stuff). Fortunately, vape bro Zac Efron loves him enough to help him bust out of the group home. And Martin Lawrence loves him enough to take him on as an apprentice dolphin guide and let him feed his pet parrots cocaine and… well, you get the gist. The Beach Bum proclaims Moondog’s stupendousness for 90 minutes.

But although everyone in the movie loves Moondog, it’s hard for anyone in the audience to like Moondog. The script insists he’s a genius, but he seems like the kind of guy you quit inviting out a couple years after graduation because he still acts like he’s at a Saturday night kegger all the time. He’s , but without the fear or the loathing. Most of the time, when he recites poetry, he’s actually ripping off D.H. Lawrence or Baudelaire, and when he’s not, he’s writing odes to his own penis. Moondog would probably tell you that he doesn’t have to actually write poetry because he lives poetry, which for him means using a gas mask as a bong while riding a bicycle in a thong, or blowing up his own yacht with fireworks—you know, the kind of poetry frat boys would live, if only an heiress would bankroll them.

Now, it might be that the movie is shot through Moondog’s subjective lens, and everyone doesn’t really think he’s unbelievably awesome. (Radical subjectivity might explain some of the more hallucinatory incidents, like the blind airplane pilot who puffs on an oversized spliff that would choke Cheech and Chong.) A vintage video shows Moondog on a wharf, reading lame stream-of-consciousness verses while almost spilling his gin and tonic, looking like a bad motivational speaker in a rainbow sports coat. Present day Moondog is incredibly impressed by his older self’s performance, unlike the half-full, bored contemporaneous audience in fold-out chairs. This flashback could suggest that his poetic appeal is a product of his own imagination. Except that the evidence of the rest of the movie—including his receipt of the Pulitzer Prize—refutes this interpretation. Of course, consistency is not Moondog’s bag—it’s for squares, baby.

I came close to awarding The Beach Bum a “” rating. In the end, however, McConnaughey’s gonzo performance, and the picture’s cinematography and other technical aspects, make it too good for the lowest rating, while the Beach Bum‘s lack of any sort of seriousness or purpose means it’s not really worth the effort of hating. It seems that the rest of the world sees something in Harmony Korine’s work I’m obviously not getting. If the Beach Bum‘s joke is supposed to be that Moondog is an insufferable, talentless, self-mythologizing jackass coasting on decades-old success, but everyone around him treats him like he’s a genius… that’s got to hit close to home for an auteur with Korine’s ego. I’d be impressed if Korine had the self-deprecating self-awareness to make Moondog an autobiographical stand-in. But even if he did, that still wouldn’t make The Beach Bum a good movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s all incredibly fun, and hilarious, and weird, but with surprisingly earnest feelings of tenderness towards its subjects.”–Emma Stefansky, Thrillist (contemporaneous)

CHANNEL 366: FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER’S MONSTER, FRANKENSTEIN (2019) / ANIMA (2019)

Since we last visited our friends at Netflix, things have taken a turn on the streaming weirdness front. The dark future that may await us was succinctly outlined in this Fast Company headline: “Netflix canceling ‘Tuca and Bertie’ is a bad sign for all the distinctive, weird shows streaming is supposed to keep alive”. The lack of love for this quirky animated comedy—a cousin to the more widely acclaimed BoJack Horseman by way of the character design of Tuca creator Lisa Hanawalt—would seem to bode ill for fans of more offbeat programming, especially with the broader success of critically reviled features like Murder Mystery and Bird Box.

On the other hand, one of the service’s biggest brands, “Stranger Things,” is simply not the kind of mainstream fare you would be likely to find on network TV. Someone with the time and patience to scroll through all of the available programming would also find such offerings as the fiercely impenetrable “The OA,” the coal-black premise of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the deeply uncomfortable comedy of “I Think You Should Leave,” or the shifting tone of animated anthology “Love, Death & Robots.” And the decision to welcome back “Russian Doll” for a second season suggests weird is not quite yet off-limits.

So let’s hold off for a bit on eulogizing Netflix’s middle finger to the mainstream, and let’s instead turn our attention toward two recent debuts which have tripped the weirdometer for critics. They also point to two very different possible outcomes for on-demand bizarre entertainment.

Still from Frankenstein's Monster's Monster, FrankensteinWhen it comes to mockumentary, there are a number of goals the filmmaker can pursue. The granddaddy of them all, This is Spial Tap, joyously punctures of the legends of rock stars. A more recent example, Netflix’s own American Vandal, sets its sights on the dubious techniques and motives of “real-crime” films and podcasts. Another ongoing series, “Documentary Now!,” is concerned with replicating the look and feel of the subjects it lampoons with startling faithfulness and exactitude. The goal of “Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein” seems to be to let star David Harbour be silly. At the outset, Harbour explains that he is investigating the fateful performance that destroyed his father’s career, an early 70s live (?) TV broadcast of a curious adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic in which the infamous scientist (also played by Harbour in full Wellesian pretentious-actor mode) poses as his own monster in order to secure funding.

It’s all very absurd. But there’s a big problem with “Frankenstein’s…”: all else aside, the program fails in its singular goal to be funny. You can tell the creators think they’re being hilarious, but nothing is believable enough to be satirical, and nothing is wacky enough to be independently uproarious. Harbour is meant to seem thunderstruck Continue reading CHANNEL 366: FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER’S MONSTER, FRANKENSTEIN (2019) / ANIMA (2019)

CAPSULE: FREAKS (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Zach Lipovsky, Adam Stein

FEATURING: Lexy Kolker, Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern, Amanda Crew

PLOT: Chloe’s father keeps her boarded up in a dilapidated house to protect her from an unspecified danger; outside, an ice cream truck driver waits for his chance to free the girl.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTFreaks has a very Hollywood feel to it, though it subverts the genre to a fair degree. It feels like a thinking man’s X-Men movie.

COMMENTS: The trials of fatherhood, the uncertainty of childhood, and pervasive agora-claustrophobia all come together with wonder and menace in Freaks, the final film of Fantasia’s final weekend slot. It acted as a nice finishing note of the festival’s main event. Appropriately, Fantasia was the final festival stop for Lipovsky’s and Stein’s baby (not just co-directors, they also wrote the screenplay together). For them and the audience, Freaks provided a climactic blast of pizzazz before things began to wind down in Montréal.

Despite her protestations, we learn fairly early that Chloe (Lexy Kolker, as impressive a 10-year-old actress as I’ve ever seen) is not normal. She’s trained by her ever-exhausted father (Emile Hirsch) to spout an origin story on demand, and be able to ad lib responses in case she’s pressed about details. Why must she worry about the “people out there who want to kill [her]”? The ever-looming ice-cream man, “Mr Snowcone” (Bruce Dern) knows the answer; he’s been hoping to get a moment to abduct (rescue?) her for some time now. Trapped at home, Chloe spends much of her days drawing and pining for her lost mother (Amand Crew). By night, she’s haunted by a wailing figure in her closet. One day, the father passes out after being injured while out getting supplies, and Chloe takes the opportunity to escape and get that chocolate ice cream she’s been hankering for.

Freaks obviously draws comparisons with some contemporary science fiction, but it attempts to address its thorny issues in a way that’s more realistic. What would you do if you were raised in abject fear of everyone but your family? What would you do if that family seemed hell-bent on stifling everything about you that was special? While Lipovsky and Stein obviously frame the story to engender sympathy for Chloe and her family (they are the main characters, after all), they do provide ambient hints about what the rest of society feels the other. As in the more famous movie with the title, this new Freaks forces the audience to themselves just how comfortable they could be with fellow humans are completely out of the norm.

Freaks‘ greatest achievement, however, is how it fleshed out such a thorough world needing so few resources. Nearly all of the action takes place in one run-down house (with occasional forays to a mountain prison). To flesh out their story, the directors use sound to great effect (be it in the form of news channel snippets or the ominous drone of an unseen helicopter) in addition to channeling the narrative through the eyes of Chloe, who despite having been shut-in all her seven years, has maintained her sense of wonder and hope. Speaking of, here’s hoping that these two filmmaker fellows make their mark with this: I don’t generally approve of the word “franchise”, but I would love to see more of this “freakish” world they’ve created.

You can also listen to our interview with co-creators Zach Lipovsky and Adam Stein (which may contain mild spoilers).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a cleverly constructed, thrilling and often super-surreal coming-of-age story that gets right into your head.”–Anton Bitel, SciFiNow (festival screening)

CAPSULE: THE MOON IN THE HIDDEN WOODS (2019)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Takahiro Umehara

FEATURING: Voices of Lee Jihyon, Jung Yoojung, and Kim Yul

PLOT: Muju, a dark cosmic lord, is enveloping the earth’s sky more and more each night because the moon has gone missing; a young princess and musician must work together to stop Muju and his earthly minion, the despicable Count Tar.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTThe Moon in the Hidden Woods features two spectacular scenes of psychedelic light play, as well as a host of novel monsters and battles, but is grounded at heart in the world of fantasy.

COMMENTS: The Moon is the Hidden Woods‘ varied elements give it a feeling of timelessness. As a Japanese director of a South Korean story, Takahiro Umehara imbues The Moon Hidden in the Woods with a touch of universality, as well. Upon finishing the film, I felt that it could have just as easily been made forty years ago as a month or two ago. This is no criticism: it has the style and aura of a film you might have seen on occasion, with great excitement, as a child, reveling in the unfolding of a truly grand adventure grounded by young, likeable heroes.

These heroes are up against the double adversaries of the great, terrible alien, Muju, and the vain, manipulative Count Tar. The story begins in a bazaar where two troupes of musicians have gathered for a percussion battle. Janggu is the leader of “Nova Folk Band,” and with the help of the incognito princess Navillera, his team handily dispatches the sitting champions, “Pipe Beat.” The action then goes into overdrive, as royal guards pursue Navillera and Janggu, who escape with meteorite hunters riding mechanical war birds and retreat to the Nova village outside of the city. One of the Count’s agents betrays the villagers and Janggu and Navillera are forced to flee into the Hidden Woods. They know they must stop Muju, who threatens the planet, while being harried by Count Tar’s henchmen.

All that is merely skimming the surface of the goings-on in The Moon in the Hidden Woods. Though he’s perhaps late to the game, Umehara creates something almost mythopoeic in this movie. Although largely based on ancient Korean customs and myths, this distillation is a singular vision of the director and his animation team. The stylistic flourishes enhance the underlying mythology: the prevalence of Korea’s five colors which make up the world (black, blue, white, orange, and yellow); the importance of drum music, along with its metaphorical significance of “bouncing back” from adversity; and a Middle Ages-meets-steampunk mechanical aesthetic.

Admittedly I only fully appreciated what was going on after having interviewed the filmmaker the morning after the screening. But my initial impression, wholly ignorant of the film’s precedents, was still one of “kick-ass wonder”. The Moon in the Hidden Woods shows a vibrant society squaring off against great evil, the staple of any great epic. While its different threads are pulled from a particular culture, Takahiro Umehara, as an outsider, revels in the opportunity to weave them into something completely new. The one caveat to my praise is that Moon very much has the feel of a children’s movie. That said, it’s a children’s movie head and shoulders above the competition.

You can also read our interview with director Takahiro Umehara.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…will delight you with all the cool visuals and small details, while making you wish the filmmakers had been as creative with their story as the visuals.”–Steve Kopian, Unseen Films (festival screening)

CAPSULE: 1BR (2019)

DIRECTED BY: David Marmor

FEATURING: Nicole Bloom, Taylor Nichols, Giles Matthey, Celeste Sully, Clayton Hoff

PLOT: Sarah’s a newcomer to LA with shaky job prospects and no friends; after being accepted into an apartment complex, she finds out too late just how close-knit the community there actually is.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a psychological thriller/horror movie about the dangers of community, which is a unique angle. However, the creepy unease that ensues isn’t anything we haven’t seen before (though typically in less-worthy examples).

COMMENTS: There is a lot to be said for making a good “genre” picture: a familiar story told well with a novel twist is hard to find. I am not insulting David Marmor and his crew when I say that 1BR is a story I’ve seen before—I’ve made it my business and pleasure to watch countless movies—because Marmor’s take on this particular story was ceaselessly well presented and kept me hooked from start to finish as I wondered how Sarah (Nicole Bloom), an imperiled newcomer to LA, would play her hand. In fact, of the five movies I watched the day I sat at 1BR‘s press screening, it’s the only title that I can presently recall.

Sarah is a young costume designer who is adrift in life, literally and metaphorically. Having recently left home and gone to LA, she has no real job prospects, no friends, and no home. She finds a job, of sorts: temping at a law firm. She gets a friend, of sorts: a vibrant co-worker named Lisa (a sassy Celeste Sully). She finds a home. Her initial joy at being accepted into an exclusive apartment complex, stuffed to the gills with apparent-neighborliness, turns into undefined ill-ease. What are those strange thumping noises at night? Who is writing threatening notes about her forbidden pet (her cat named “Giles”)? And what is it that’s so disconcerting about the two bulges on her flat-room wall? We know something is about to go wrong—and things go very wrong for young Sarah.

Plenty of psychological horror explores the fear of darkness and the dangers of isolation. 1BR swaps those for an unsettling hyper-illumination as it explores the even greater dangers of community. This group of smiling, happy people she’s ended up with are close-knit to the point of annihilating their individuality. Of the tenets practiced by the tenants, one struck me firmly. Though based on some West Coast cult figures, I was reminded of nothing so much as Maoist-era “struggle sessions.” This criticism of the group’s certainty of its correctness running against the individual’s shouldering of blame was pitch-perfect: there are prices for cohesion that are far too high.

I’ve had an interesting time discussing 1BR with other reviewers and I think I’ve done a fair job dissuading them of their initial dismissiveness. It would be overwhelming and ultimately unsatisfying, as well as impossible, if every movie we saw was Completely New. 1BR captures the suffocation of the coercive integration of a fully free individual into a monolithic social unit. Would-be social messiahs like Charles D. Ellerby (who devised the community’s creed) would do well to realize two things: you are never “always right,” and it takes all sorts to make a world. Ending on a note of very cautious optimism, Marmor’s debut gives us just enough hope that we can escape the doom of INGSOC-esque terror. We’d just better be prepared to run like hell.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Marmor’s feature debut, which takes a new arrival to Hollywood and puts her in an apartment complex whose residents have scary plans for her, is a cousin of Rosemary’s Baby in which the occult is replaced by mere brainwashing and the eerie glamour of Central Park luxury decomposes into the generic architecture of a Los Angeles starter apartment.” -John DeFore, The Hollywood Report (festival screening)

CAPSULE: DANIEL ISN’T REAL (2019)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Miles Robbins, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sasha Lane, Chukwudi Iwuji, Mary Stuart Masterson

PLOT: Escaping an unpleasant encounter between his parents, young Luke instead witnesses the aftermath of a mass murder; immediately following, his friend Daniel manifests.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTDaniel Isn’t Real‘s beautiful visual style, that at times evokes techno-metal Suspiria, is put to the service of an engaging story about the connection between demonic possession and mental illness. Despite the advent of hundreds of Apocrypha slots, however, Daniel Isn’t Real hews much more closely to distorted horror than the insanity we’d prefer.

COMMENTS: As rip-offs go, Daniel Isn’t Real is a mighty fine one. I use that phrase without its negative connotations; as the director himself explained after the movie, it is important for filmmakers to be able to rip off what’s come before. They can grow when what starts as an explicit homage becomes something new. Adam Mortimer is growing as a director, and there ‘s no shame in him acknowledging his influences. He began as a music video director, a background that served him well for the dreamlike nature of this movie.

At its core, Daniel Isn’t Real is the story of a troubled young artist on the cusp of schizophrenia. Luke (Miles Robbins) acquired the mysterious friend named Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) during his childhood. Now Daniel, once locked in an otherworldly, fortress-like dollhouse for having pushed young Luke to try to kill his mother, appears again. He shows up at just the right time, it seems, helping Luke to navigate college life, giving him advice and support, and, in one amusing scene, even helping him to cheat on a math test. However, Daniel begins resenting Luke’s control and seeks to take control of Luke’s body. As for Luke, he experiences the cost of following the lead of a wholly uninhibited, and violent, part of of himself.

Mortimer described the visual aesthetic of the film—particularly Daniel’s world—as “ultraviolet.” It’s a handy term, despite the fact that that “color” is technically in the invisible part of the spectrum. Daniel’s unreal purple lighting cues reinforce the character’s underlying menace (which is established well by Patrick Schwarzenegger’s channeling ‘s American Psycho-yuppie). This contrast between the soft and gentle illumination of Luke’s world and Daniel’s underworld is the primary motif that helps the audience differentiate visually what they’re experiencing in the narrative. Luke’s real world goes drab and sickens into an amber palette as his grip on his own mind and body disintegrates.

The main joy I found in Daniel Isn’t Real comes from its early depiction of the relationship between the two sides of Luke. (Or, the movie suggests, the relationship between Luke and this mystical entity that has entered his psyche.) Their playful relationship as young boys is reminiscent of experiences of those who were outcasts growing up. Tying the dangers of mental trauma to the metaphor of demonic possession makes it clear that, as much as we may find comfort in the manifestation of our “stronger” side, our insecurities are the signposts of what keeps us anchored to those around us. By skating on the edge of psychological horror and supernatural horror, Adam Mortimer performs a neat hat trick that kept me gripped right through the final fantastical showdown.

You can also listen to our interview with director Aama Egypt Mortimer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a mind-bendingly freaky psychological horrorshow that crawls disconcertingly into your head and stays in there, gnawing away, long after the credits fade… Echoes of the creeping, dissociative paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant-era Polanski run throughout the film, but Daniel Isn’t Real is very much its own distinct fever dream of chimerical unease. Highly recommended.”–Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle (festival screening)