Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Orson Welles

FEATURING: John Huston, , Peter Bogdanovich, Susan Strasberg, Norman Foster, Robert Random

PLOT: On the last day of his life, director Jake Hannaford shares footage from the movie he’s been trying to complete despite a desperate lack of funding, the disappearance of his leading actor, and the doubts of his crew, his peers, and the Hollywood press.

Still from The Other Side of the Wind (2018)

COMMENTS: It’s natural to be wary of a movie where the story behind it is more interesting than the one on the screen. On the other hand, it’s arguable that Orson Welles never made a movie where that equation wasn’t in play. From his very first feature, a little picture about a newspaper publisher, the story off-camera has always been at least as compelling as the one made for public consumption, and usually with a good deal more tragedy attached. As the major studios turned against him and his efforts to assemble financing and infrastructure became more haphazard and idiosyncratic, the subject of Welles himself invariably took precedence over whatever story he actually hoped to tell.

But even by his own yardstick, the road to The Other Side of the Wind is unusually winding and protracted. Welles filmed over the course of six years on two continents, with multiple parts recast over the years and the lead role unfilled until Year 3, and with the filmmaker insisting that there was still more to shoot. Completion was held up by variety of obstacles, including producer embezzlement, flooding in Spain, Hollywood indifference, and the Iranian revolution. Like so many of Welles’ projects, Wind would remain unfinished at the time of his death, another dream lost to history… until, 42 years after principal photography wrapped, a team of Welles collaborators and admirers endeavored to assemble the many pieces of his last great work into a form he might have intended. (Whatever you may think of Netflix, they did cinema history a favor by not only bankrolling this effort but by releasing it alongside a documentary about Welles’ torturous efforts to complete the film, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. It’s an invaluable companion piece for anyone interested in this chapter of the great man’s legendarily troubled career.)

It is impossible to know how successfully this reconstruction got to the vision locked inside Welles’ head. After all, Welles himself changed his intentions throughout production. Furthermore, he seems to have been going for something entirely new and alien to him. Welles made much of the fact that neither the framing film or Jake Hannaford’s work are meant to be in a style in any way recognizable as his own, so we can’t even rely upon the director’s previous works as a guide. Today, we recognize Welles’ use of improvisation and documentary techniques as what we’ve come to call “mockumentary,” but in the early 70s, there was very little precedent (except, possibly, Welles’ own “War of the Worlds”). But we know enough of Welles’ increasing focus on the subjects of abandonment, thwarted ambition, and betrayal to recognize that Wind is not only a continuation of those themes but maybe his most personal exploration of them.

Welles denied suggestions that the film was autobiographical, which Continue reading CAPSULE: THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (2018)

CAPSULE: ANATOMY OF HELL (2004)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Amira Casar, Rocco Siffredi, voice of Catherine Breillat

PLOT: A woman pays a gay man to observe her intimate moments for four nights.

Still from Anatomy of Hell (2004)

COMMENTS: Sartre said Hell is other people. Catherine Breillat says Hell is other people’s bodies; or, more specifically, other genders’ bodies; or, when you get right down to it, women’s bodies.

A Woman goes to a gay disco and slits her wrists in the bathroom. She’s rescued by a gay Man, who takes her to a clinic to be stitched up. The Woman proposes to pay him to “watch her when she’s unwatchable.” He goes to her house for four nights, pours himself a few fingers of Jack Daniels to help him make it through the night, and they talk while she lies naked and exposed. “They fragility of female flesh inspires disgust or brutality,” he muses. “The veils [men] adorn us with anticipate our shrouds,” the Woman proclaims. (The conversation is not intended to be naturalistic; it’s a staged Platonic dialogue with a poetic overlay). While never verbally expressing anything but disgust for the Woman, the Man is drawn to experiment intimately with her body (including scenes involving garden tools, and worse). Then the arrangement ends. He is moved, and, in what may be a fantasy sequence, commits an act of brutality. That’s it; it’s partially successful conversion therapy.

Siffredi, a pornographic actor best known for his recurring “Buttman” character, turns out to be a surprisingly capable actor—although his moods are restricted to disgust and melancholy, both simmering. Casar is beautiful as she lounges around naked, but her role could be played by almost any beautiful nude actress. Although she shows more range than Siffredi, as any actress might, she has trouble putting across dialogue like “in intercourse, the act isn’t what matters, but its meaning.” Casar’s body double is anatomically correct. Breillat herself dubs the thoughts for both parties.  And that’s it for the acting—which is a problem, in what’s basically a character-driven two-hander (explicit though it is, it’s so anti-erotic that could never make the grade as a one-hander).

On release, Anatomy of Hell received a lot of understandable criticism for its overly-simplistic brand of radical gender philosophy. Taken literally, the film argues (explicitly and didactically, despite the poetic trappings) that men are disgusted by women’s bodies and instinctively long to damage them—and that this misogyny is even more pronounced in gay men. That’s not a position I would want to defend in a Ph.D. thesis. But while that literal reading is both ridiculous and offensive, there is another layer to the film that is hopeful. Despite his disgust at The Woman’s body, The Man is eventually seduced by it. And after the job is done, he finds himself changed by the experience: “I experienced total intimacy with her. And I don’t even know her name.” Radical posturing aside, Anatomy of Hell at least partly celebrates the alchemy of shared human bodies: that point when carnal disgust is overcome and physical commingling becomes a spiritual experience. Look past words to the magic of bodies, this wordy picture whispers. Though mercifully short, Anatomy of Hell is a hard watch, composed of dull, pseudo-profound dialogues broken by shock sequences designed to reinforce its putative thesis that female bodies are disgusting. It’s not recommended, but—if you can bypass the untenable literal reading its characters propose—this erotic experiment is more thought-provoking than its detractors suggest.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“But sometimes [Breillat] is just plain goofy, as in ‘Anatomy of Hell,’ which plays like porn dubbed by bitter deconstructionist theoreticians.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Motyka, who asked for more Breillat reviews and stated that Anatomy of Hell was “especially worth looking at, because of its rejection of a traditional plot.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: I KILLED MY LESBIAN WIFE, HUNG HER ON A MEATHOOK, AND NOW I HAVE A THREE PICTURE DEAL AT DISNEY (1993) / SLOW BOB IN THE LOWER DIMENSIONS (1991)

The calling card. For anyone breaking into the movie business, any and all experience is an absolute must to prove that you’ve got the goods. So having a little piece of your talent to show off could mean the difference between making your career and never getting off the bench. After all, one never knows where they might find the next Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB.

Four years before he and buddy Matt Damon would take home Oscar gold for their Good Will Hunting screenplay, and nearly two decades before he would complete his climb back to respectability by directing Argo, Ben Affleck was still a guy looking for a break wherever he could find one. That meant bit parts in movies, appearances in children’s series and ABC Afterschool Specials, and even directing where the opportunity presented itself. Which explains why his IMDb entry contains, 14 years before his ostensible maiden voyage as a director at the helm of Gone Baby Gone, a short with the title “I Killed my Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meathook, and Now I Have a Three Picture Deal at Disney,” a title which is both unwieldy and annoyingly inaccurate. If anything, those titular events seem to have transpired in the opposite direction.

This may seem like I’m being pedantic, but it’s an important distinction, because that title is doing the lion’s share of the work here. It suggests something subversive or satirical, but ends up being little more than a slice of the life of a typical Hollywood asshole whose aggressive tendencies are physicalized. Co-writer Jay Lacopo, starring as “The Director,” displays not a whit of subtlety as he histrionically castigates his doomed wife, browbeats his spineless sycophants, and uses a casting call to hunt for a new target for his tantrums. And being such a transparently bad guy, it’s really important that the thing meant to lure you in doesn’t end up trivializing the serious themes it purports to dramatize. Is the wife actually a lesbian? There’s a real possibility that she’s just an enlightened woman who’s not into this guy’s crap. Did Disney bestow a deal upon this jerk as a result of his crimes? No, that just seems to be where he shops for his next victim (and it’s worth noting that no studio is named in the actual screenplay; it frankly looks like a startup production company with an office, some chairs, and a dream). We’re dealing with real livewire issues here like spousal abuse and toxic culture, and those themes are reduced to a joke by the clickbait title. It’s tempting to see an early call-out to the #MeToo movement, with The Director’s bad actions and misogynist views tainting the industry and endangering women. But don’t be fooled. He’s just a creep and a murderer, sucking all the air out of the room.

There’s not much of a directorial voice on display. Affleck keeps a loose camera, and he is smart enough to confine all the violence to Lacopo’s over-the-top ravings, rather than celebrating his heinous Continue reading CAPSULE: I KILLED MY LESBIAN WIFE, HUNG HER ON A MEATHOOK, AND NOW I HAVE A THREE PICTURE DEAL AT DISNEY (1993) / SLOW BOB IN THE LOWER DIMENSIONS (1991)

CAPSULE: AVALON (2001)

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DIRECTED BY: Mamoru Oshii

FEATURING: Malgorzata Foremniak, Wladyslaw Kowalski, Jerzy Gudejko, Dariusz Biskupski

PLOT: Ash is a master solo-player in the illegal immersive game “Avalon” who risks brain-death in pursuit of the secret level known as “Special A.”

COMMENTS: Tanks rumble down the dilapidated streets of an Eastern European city center. Civilians scurry around frantically; partisans take aim at the lumbering metal beasts. One of these gun-toting figures stands out for her daring maneuvers. Artillery barrels blast, shots burst forth, and a number of figures are hit. They transform into two-dimensional renderings before shattering into thousands of polygonal shards. The lady fighter leaps a-top one of the tanks and… soon the mission is over. Ash awakens in a dingy room and removes her virtual reality head-set. She’s earned some cash from this lawbreaking, but more importantly she’s added to her legend. She is the reigning queen of Avalon.

What follows, to put it politely, is a bit of a dramatic letdown. When your dystopian future is washed in the same sepia and decay as the escapist game which acts as your dramatic vehicle, it helps to have some convincing characters to differentiate between the decrepit future and the decrepit whiz-bang tech. Mamorou Oshii is no stranger to science fiction, no stranger to compelling visuals, and no stranger to techno-cynicism. However, being shackled to in-the-flesh actors and materials-based set-pieces, he has lost his ability to adequately shape the world. It is no surprise that when he is playing with the (then) new CGI wizardry, he shines—a sequence involving a cannon-covered super fortress on wheels is stunning. It is perhaps a surprise, however, and certainly a letdown that the human actors driving the speculative narrative seem to have fewer dimensions than his literal two-dimensional animations.

Reality, morality, choice, perception, and the relationship between man, machine, and the virtual: these are all explored in Avalon, but are explored much better in other Mamorou Oshii films, not to mention the many other CGI/VR movies that arrived en mass in the early aughts. Avalon gets points for being a Polish addition to the genre (the director’s nationality not-with-standing), and for the polish of its look (it is yet another movie which adds up to far less than the sum of its single frames). But the stilted performances become impossible to overlook. There is a blast of beauty-cum-surrealism in the final scene, when Ash reaches the elusive hidden level within the game. For the first time, the film enjoys the full color spectrum, and a diegetic symphony underscores a dramatic encounter. Ultimately, though, Avalon suffers from its anchor to the real world, and acts merely as a reminder that some filmmakers best perform their amazing magic when not constrained by the laws of the mundane.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Neither an out-and-out actioner nor a fully realized study of the psychology of games-playing, pic is still reasonably diverting and has a curio value coming from Mamoru Ishii, director of cult Japanese anime ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (1995).”–Derek Elley, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DELTA SPACE MISSION (1984)

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DIRECTED BY: , Mircea Toia, Victor Antonescu

FEATURING: Voices of Mirela Gorea, Marcel Iures

PLOT: A super-powerful A.I. computer falls in love with a beautiful alien journalist and chases her across the universe.

Still from Delta Space Mission (1984)
COMMENTS: Though made in Romania in the dying days of the Cold War, Delta Space Mission proves that some concepts have universal appeal: Mankind’s drive to explore the fascinating universe in which it finds itself. Faith that our essential goodness will one day abolish prejudices, so that people of different genders, races and species can work together for the common good and against common enemies. The stalkerish love of an Epcot Center-shaped supercomputer for a shapely green alien.

If Delta Space Mission‘s plot seems episodic—and a bit choppy—when you watch it, that’s because it was originally twelve short films made together as proofs of concept, then assembled into a feature film. Had the pilot film been a big success, Delta Space Mission would have become a franchise—possibly even an international export. In the opening, Starfleet Federation-type characters are introduced, but hardly fleshed out; presumably, had the series continued, they would have become more meaningful players. But this arc belongs to lime-skinned journalist Alma (who’s also a pretty good shot with a raygun) and her metal-eating alien space dog, Tin.

When Alma is so enchanted by the jewel-like beauty of the giant spherical  supercomputer that she imagines herself dancing with it in a cosmic ballet, watching it grow multicolored rings along which she gracefully sails before the whole scene dissolves into a a splatter of colors, you’ll see the potential appeal of the series to the psychedelic crowd. Other episodes range from the computer animating giant stone robots, ocean waves, and a radio tower in a vain attempt to capture Alma, to the pivotal confrontation on a swamp planet full of strange aliens that wouldn’t look too out of place on Fantastic Planet (including some friendly green blobs with Kermit the Frog heads who treat Tin as their personal beach ball). The pastiche of classic sci-fi influences and references are entertaining to pick out: the space station looks like the Death Star, a spaceship chase though some rock formations that recalls The Empire Strikes Back‘s asteroid field escape, and so on.

The similarity to American Saturday morning cartoons of the period, or to the animated segments of 1970s-era “Sesame Street,” comes from the budgetary constraints. The movie has a lot of action—in fact, it’s near constant shootouts and chases—but it’s animated at a low frame rate, and not particularly fluid. There are lots of static scenes, and the designs for characters and other moving elements are simple, with detail reserved for the bright, dramatic backgrounds. The action is accompanied by an abstract, vintage space-synth soundtrack that sounds like a cross between Tangerine Dream and a malfunctioning Atari 2600. But Delta Space Mission works within its limitations, never letting them confine an imagination that soars towards the cosmic. If the idea of a kitschy Saturday morning sci-fi adventure with an offbeat, mildly psychedelic Eastern European spin to it sounds appealing to you, you won’t be disappointed with Delta Space Mission.

Delta Space Mission is released by Dead Crocodile on Blu-ray or VOD.

You can also watch our interview with director Calin Cazan, where he provides some more background information on the project.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…yes, “Delta Space Mission” is supremely weird… a head-trip viewing experience that does well with colors and sound, connecting to younger viewers and those in an altered state of mind. “Delta Space Mission” doesn’t offer cohesive storytelling (a few characters introduced early in the picture have nothing to do with the plot), but it’s an engrossing sit, with strong artistic achievements and a few weirdo touches to keep it all wonderfully amusing.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)

(This movie was nominated for review by Will, who called it “such an amazing animated feature and would work perfect among some of the other movies already featured on this site.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE SCARY OF SIXTY-FIRST (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Dasha Nekrasova

FEATURING: Betsey Brown, Madeline Quinn, Dasha Nekrasova, Mark Rapaport

PLOT: Two roommates rent a bargain flat on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that was previously owned by Jeffrey Epstein.

Still form The Scary of Sixty-First (2021)

COMMENTS: The awkwardly-titled The Scary of Sixty-First is equally awkwardly made. It feels like an adaptation of a Jeffrey Epstein conspiracy podcast that realized it didn’t have enough crazy ideas to spin into a feature film, so a horror movie subplot was added. At least half the film is spent rehashing the Epstein case without developing any deranged (or even interesting) new theories: there’s the discovery of some arguably pedophilic tarot cards, some real estate research to see if Epstein’s properties form a pentagram, and a doppelganger of Ghislaine Maxwell (who looks almost nothing like the now-convicted socialite—intentionally?) walking around Manhattan, but the hints of occultism never really take root. A lot of potential craziness goes uncrazed: if they could have Q-Anoned the Epstein case into some kind of pareidoliac parody involving the ghost of RFK running a secret cabal out of a fleet of taco trucks or something, they might have had a movie.

While Scary does nothing wrong, cinematically, there is a strong “first film” sensibility at work here. As bold as the choice to center the movie around a contemporary atrocity might be, the rest of the stylistic choices tend to the conventional. The acting isn’t up to snuff: co-writer/director Dasha Nekrasova is fine, but co-writer Madeline Quinn (as roommate Noelle) gives some distractingly flat line readings, and minor characters (a crystal shop owner) go too far into caricature. Fortunately, Betsey Brown’s Addie saves the day—after she gets possessed—with sexual hysterics that include what surely will be the most bizarre Prince Andrew-themed masturbation sequence of the year.

Noelle, and Dasha Nekrasova’s nameless conspiracist, are humorless (although sometimes funny—“Have you heard of Pizzagate?”), and their investigation goes nowhere. Nor do their characters provide psychological insights into their obsession—as far as we can tell, it’s simply a product of boredom, and maybe too much White Claw and Vyvanse. Addie, on the other hand, is neurotic and (it’s hinted) kinky even before being possessed by the spirits haunting this orgy flophouse of the damned. Her erotic antics provide the freakiest moments: besides her multiple self-pleasure scenes, including one that’s intercut with an asphyxiation, there’s some really out-of-bounds roleplay during intercourse with her douchey boyfriend that ends with a nod to The Exoricst. Rent it for the promised rabbit hole horror; but if you chose to stay, stay for the sex in this surprisingly horny female-driven horror.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One oddity worth a look for the adventurous is Dasha Nekrasova’s The Scary of Sixty-First, which is exactly as peculiar and WTF as that not-quite-grammatical title… too eccentric for any easy classification.”–Dennis Harvey, 48 Hills (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE UNKNOWN MAN OF SHANDIGOR (1967)

L’inconnu de Shandigor

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DIRECTED BY: Jean-Louis Roy

FEATURING: Daniel Emilfork, Marie-France Boyer, Marcel Imhoff,

PLOT: After Swiss scientist Herbert Von Krantz develops a method for nullifying nuclear explosions, various world powers plot to steal his secret.

Still from The Unknown Man of Shandigor (1967)

COMMENTS: I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that this film is quite an oddity. It features Daniel Emilfork, the eccentric performer who portrayed the memorable villain Krank in The City of Lost Children, and perhaps the strangest character actor to come from France. The film looks like Godard‘s take on film noir channeled through a smirking Cold War nihilism. There’s death by “carbonic foam from Siberia”, which unfolds in a boogie-woogie-blasted rave-cave. Russian and American agents feud in the natural history section of a grand museum replete with stone busts and huge prehistoric skeletons. And the movie features one of the oddest ’60s set-pieces I’ve ever seen: a gang of shorn-headed goons prepare the corpse of their chief spy while their boss croons “Bye-bye, Mr. Spy” over a cabaret-ragtime tune he plays on a pipe organ in the embalming room.

The bad news is the narrative is ill-executed, making The Unknown Man of Shandigor a heaving stew of intermingling lumps that, on inspection, feels empty. Herbert von Krantz (the unceasingly overblown Daniel Emilfork) has invented a method of negating the effects of nuclear explosions, haughtily declaring that future wars will now unfold “however I want them to.” As so often occurs when a genius tilts the balance of power, greater forces come out of the woodwork to “rectify” things. Enter four different spy troupes, each introduced by an incongruous subtitle. The Russians want professor von Krantz’s “Canceler” device as a gift for the proletariat: what better way to reward the working masses than with the gift of military dominance? They have set up shop in a chateau teaming with gilt and mirrors, and focus their efforts on abducting the professor’s albino assistant. The Americans, led by ex-Wehrmacht scientist “Bobby Gun”, hang out in a nearby bowling alley while they undertake a similar plot to steal the formula.

The other two agencies are beefier in their weirdness: a shadowy outfit of bald-headed, spectacle-wearing operatives led by the aforementioned organist; and coming out of left field (or, more precisely, East Asian field) in the final act, the “Black Sun Orient,” who seem to be commanded by some manner of artificial intelligence. This all sounds very exciting on paper, and while the strangeness is served up by ladleful, the effect somehow is no more than occasional wide-eyed smiling to interrupt a coursing streak of tedium. I should not have felt bored much of the time, but this film felt half again as long as it actually was. The inconsistency of tone—messianically grand at times, slinking at others; unnervingly bizarre for stretches, ho-hum-drum elsewise—prevents this from attaining either standard greatness or so-bad-it’s-greatness. Though The Unknown Man of Shandigor largely fails as a movie, it is still worth a look for its succulent morsels of peculiarity. Just bear in mind there’s a lot of bitter broth in the bowl.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

A wild mix of Euro-spy trappings, French New Wave-styled visual flourishes and quirky, black comedy… The Unknown Man Of Shandigor is really a bit of a pop art masterpiece.” -Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop!