Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: NEVER GONNA SNOW AGAIN (2020)

Sniegu juz nigdy nie bedzie

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DIRECTED BY: Malgorzata Szumowska, Michal Englert

FEATURING: Alec Utgoff, Maja Ostaszewska, Agata Kulesza, Weronika Rosati, Katarzyna Figura, Lukasz Simlat, Krzysztof Czeczot, Andrzej Chyra

PLOT: Residents of a gated community in Poland believe a mysterious Ukrainian masseur has special powers.

Still from Never Gonna Snow Again (2020)

COMMENTS: Mystery masseur Zhenia was born in Pripyat, the closest town to Chernobyl, seven years before the reactor melted down and exploded. That event was in 1986, which means that Zhenia was born in 1979. Stalker was released in 1979.

Of course, those dates could be coincidences, but its worth mentioning that later Never Gonna Snow Again will directly quote a scene from Stalker, and the ghost of (alongside Pier Paolo Pasolini, by way of Teorema) haunts the production. This movie is thick with allusions, feints, and mysterious possible connections that never quite cohere. The premise is simple enough: Zhenia begins peddling his massage services to residents of a wealthy Polish gated community. Everyone feels incredible and energized after a session, and the neighborhood comes to believe his hands have extraordinary healing powers. It also turns out that he is a gifted amateur hypnotist whose techniques can give their psyches the equivalent of a deep tissue massage. He becomes a central figure in the lives of a number of the families living in this tract of luxurious but nearly identical suburban homes, most notably an alcoholic woman, a man fighting cancer, an aging bohemian and her drug-chemist son, a woman obsessed with her three dogs, and an ex-soldier with a nasty temper.

This setup gives Never Gonna Snow Again ample space to explore many possible avenues, from the social to the personal to the existential. It’s a movie that begs for an allegorical interpretation, but I’m not sure it plays fair with the audience on that count. The story leaves a lot of loose thematic ends, with no hints on how to correctly tie them up. Is it a parable about immigrants? A social satire of the new Polish bourgeoisie? An environmental warning? A Christ allegory? Is the story actually about Zhenia’s childhood? Why the Stalker references? Why do the children believe it will never snow again? Why do the neighbors feel better after meeting with Zhenia, even though their lives don’t materially improve? What’s the meaning of Zhenia’s relationship with dogs? Why does Zhenia speak fluent Vietnamese?

That’s just a small sample of the movie’s unanswered questions. Ambiguity is a tricky thing. Wielded well, it can produce powerful intellectual and emotional effects. But a little bit can go a long way, and loose ends are easier to deal with if there is at least one strong central idea to latch onto. When nothing links up, you are left only to appreciate the aesthetics; a hit-or-miss affair that depends on your subjective preferences. Never Gonna Snow Again impressed art-house critics, which is why it has a 94% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes and will be Poland’s submission to this year’s Oscars. Many praised Alec Utgoff‘s performance, but I found him pleasantly bland, lacking the supernatural presence brought to Teorema (a tall order, admittedly, but almost a necessary element for a fable like this to work). The cinematography and sound design are outstanding, but they’re only pieces of the puzzle. You need to be attuned to slow cinema and the subtler shades of weirdness to fall for this one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Desire and delirium in Eastern Europe, with an undertow of eco-anxiety, make for a bizarre hybrid, somewhere between Twin Peaks and Pasolini’s Theorem…heads all the way into the territory of surreal satire to eerie and intriguing effect.”–Jonathan Romney, Screen Daily (festival review)

CAPSULE: LOVE RITES (1987)

Cérémonie d’amour; AKA Queen of the Night

DIRECTED BY: Walerian Borowczyk

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: A man pursues a prostitute he meets on a train into a web of sadomasochistic mystery.

Still from Love Rites (1987)

COMMENTS: If you’re visiting this site, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard of Walerian Borowczyk, the brilliant Polish animator turned art-house pornographer. Much has been made of his infamous fall from grace, which began with 1973’s unsettling and twisted Immoral Tales and hit a spectacular climax with 1975’s  The Beast [La Bête], a Baroque passion play of bestiality that flew in the face of all accepted standards of good taste, and left Borowczyk to wander the wilderness making low-budget schlock for the rest of his days.

Or so the story goes. I can’t speak for the rest of Borowczyk’s work after The Beast, but Love Rites, which turned out to be his last film, finds his eccentric brand of perversion still intact, just a bit mellowed by age. A middle-aged clothing buyer, Hugo (Mathieu Carrière) pursues a clandestine affair with Miriam (Marina Pierro), a mysterious prostitute whom he encounters on a subway. After a game of cat-and-mouse and a lengthy conversation about poetry and acting shouted across opposite sides of a train platform, the two lovers take refuge in a church before making their way to a secret boudoir for an afternoon of sexual domination and submission.

From that description, you might wonder about this movie’s weird credentials. Indeed, on the surface, this is little more than a stereotypical French erotic drama, with the first half of the film’s brief running time devoted to tedious intellectual monologues veering between philosophy, religion, and deadpan tales of past sexual abuse–all of which are apparently intended to be titillating overtures for the real action which is surely lurking just around the corner. After all, don’t forget that The Beast begins in much the same way, with a good 45 minutes devoted to a glorified period soap opera with occasional insinuations of a beastly secret that eventually pays off in a big way.

There’s a troubling development here though, away from the cinematic and towards the literary. Once we enter the boudoir of Miriam’s ominous “friend and mentor,” more and more of the action becomes relegated to a narrator—to the point that most of the juicy stuff that Borowczyk is famous for is hidden off-screen. With sophisticated relish, the narrator relates the sordid events taking place just out of view, as if reading from the works of the Marquis de Sade for an audience of horny aristocrats. The action is hidden from view with compositions designed just as tastefully as the narration is blunt and smutty, with visual motifs evoking cages, butterflies and birds. As the action builds into a fever dream of emasculation and perversion, the narration gradually diminishes, eventually disappearing completely as the film reaches its head-scratching denouement.

But while the film’s muted tone can be both frustrating and boring, there’s no denying that Love Rites is pure Borowczyk. Libertine perversion pervades the film, despite its attempts to hide these qualities from view. If Borowczyk’s intention was to deny the audience’s desire for easy erotic payoffs in lieu of something more esoteric, he succeeded. What’s happening out of view, in the margins, remains perpetually out of our grasp. Who is the unseen madame who demands that games of submission be played in her boudoir? What about the mute Cambodian slave who could appear at any second to carry out some inconceivable orgy of torture?

Alas, Borowczyk is not about to give us the answers to these questions, much like Miriam, who teases her male prey with promises of erotic fulfillment but then confounds her client’s expectations, eventually turning the tables and leaving poor Hugo with more questions than answers. For those who enjoy such esoteric mind games, Love Rites might be just what you’ve been looking for. And for Borowczyk historians, the new Blu-ray release from Kino-Lorber offers the uncut theatrical version as well as a shorter director’s cut that cuts some of the flack from the film’s first half (which is chock full of it). But if you’re new to Borowczyk, you might be better served by checking out his earlier, more infamous films, and then streaming this one as an epilogue.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an object lesson in creating a surrealist work of art. The 1987 film exhibits an exacting preoccupation with the specificities of places and objects, while at the same time remaining open to spontaneity.”–Budd Wilkins, Slant (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: LAMB (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Valdimar Jóhannsson

FEATURING: , Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson

PLOT: A childless couple living on a remote farm in Iceland become attached to a newborn lamb.

Still from Lamb (2021)

COMMENTS: Debuting director Valdimar Jóhannsson has been adamant in interviews that Lamb is not a horror movie. While that may not be strictly accurate—Lamb abuts the supernatural, relies on ominous music cues and a bit of shocking violence, and nurtures a sense of unease throughout—the lack of intent to horrify is an important consideration to get your expectations in order.

Anyone going in expecting a stately A24 horror outing a la St. Maud (2021), The Lighthouse (2019), or Hereditary (2018) will likely grow impatient in the first forty-five minutes as the movie languorously spends its time following the slow rhythms of farm life. Maria and Ingvar, all alone except for a dog, a cat, and their livestock, spend long days grazing their sheep, preparing and eating meals (including lamb chops), and servicing their temperamental tractor. The only event that breaks up the idyllic monotony is the unexpected birth of a new lamb. After pulling the babe out of its mother, Maria gets that motherly look in her eyes. The couple take the lamb inside their home and care for the newborn like a favored pet, lavishing as much affection and attention on it as they would on an infant. The cute-as-a-button critter is usually lovingly wrapped in swaddling clothes, and it’s only when we get a brief glimpse of its lower extremities that anything resembling horror starts to take root.

Things perk up a bit after the overly-long introduction, helped by the arrival of Ingvar’s ne’er-do-well brother, who crashes at the farm and, like the audience, looks askance at the couple’s unnatural attachment to the animal. Things still proceed relatively slowly, but the viewer’s interest is held by dreamy visuals of the verdant Icelandic valley and the strangely expressive lamb (formed from a variety of techniques, including CGI composting and puppetry, into an aberration that’s simultaneously ridiculous and uncanny). The narrative is thin, but the metaphorical implications are broad; the story is driven by a likable couple’s need for something to love. (Coincidentally, displaced and delusional parental love is also a key feature of the recent Titane). It falls just short of earning a general “” tag, but for those who enjoy slow but offbeat art-house movies that focus as much on gorgeous scenery as horrific visions, Lamb may serve to fill an empty space inside of you.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a kind of WTF object of fascination… Even the (excellent) trailer from boutique studio A24 can’t find a way to entirely hide the movie’s hyper-bizarre premise.”–Taylor Antrim, Vogue (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: KILLER NUN (1979)

Suor Omicidi

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DIRECTED BY: Giulio Berutti

FEATURING: Anita Ekberg, Paola Morra, , Lou Castel, Alida Valli

PLOT: Sister Gertrude, fresh off cancer surgery and crippled by  morphine addiction, experiences a crisis of faith as she finds herself entertaining impure thoughts and harboring murderous feelings.

COMMENTS: What a wonderfully depraved world we live in that could not only be a thing but be so plentiful that it would merit its own Wikipedia entry. The calling carries with it such a rich combination of power and repression, of mystery and denial, of sex and frustration, that it was probably inevitable that it would become a cinematic fetish object. So, now that we’ve got it, what do we do with it?

Killer Nun never comes up with a particularly satisfying answer to that question. Which is odd, because all the pieces seem to be in place. We’ve got grisly murders. We’ve got deliciously nasty Bible readings. We’ve got Paola Morra ready to walk around the room completely starkers for no particular reason. Heck, look at that title. It sure feels like we’ve got all the elements in place for a delightfully smutty evening at the movies. And yet it never clears that very low bar.

Ultimately, the filmmakers aren’t willing to get down in the mud, which would be fine if they didn’t spend so much time showing off their rich and bountiful mud fields. Consider a scene where the central character, a nun with a history of drug addiction, goes into town, swaps out her habit for a dress, scopes out a local bar, and picks up a man for a no-strings-attached assignation. What a bold sacrilege this presents. Is this a swipe at the restrictive morals of the Church? A signifier of a mind resolutely on the road to madness? No, it’s just something to do, a scene that any self-respecting giallo is supposed to have, and it never comes up again. And that’s Killer Nun’s problem in a nutshell. It’s brought all the accoutrements of trash, but it’s not willing to do the work. I mean, for crying out loud, to cast Joe Dallesandro in your movie as a straight-laced model of propriety without a trace of irony is some kind of malpractice.

So thank heavens for Anita Ekberg, who is the only thing in the film that works on either side of the line. With her piercing blue eyes surrounded by ninja-star lashes, her Sister Gertrude cuts an imposing figure as she marches through the halls and practically bullies the strange variety of patients into every morning salutation and evening vespers. This lends potency to her own loss of control, because she knows that’s all that’s keeping her from being purely cruel. When she’s on the screen, accompanied by Alessandro Alessandroni’s hyperactive score with its wailing theremin and sinister plucked strings summoning bad vibes, Killer Nun flirts with the kind of low art it promises.

The Mother Superior’s declaration that “It’s a nun’s vocation to suffer” is as much a mission statement as the movie has. But it also regrets putting its heroine through that suffering, and that split personality makes Killer Nun a misguided and dull watch. Get thee to a more interesting nunnery.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one doesn’t really watch KILLER NUN for its wrenching drama. No, the true pleasures to be found here are gleefully grotesque and often hilariously cruel…. A remarkable, macabre and truly mad movie…”–Chris Alexander, Alexander on Film (Blu-ray)

(This movie was nominated for review by Phoenix, who argued ” I found it to be surprisingly disturbing and effective. Some of its themes are sexual repression and lesbianism. And it’s hilarious. But weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: SIBERIA (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Abel Ferrara

FEATURING: Willem Dafoe

PLOT: The owner of an outpost on the snowy outskirts of nowhere journeys through the countryside and his memories alongside his team of dogs.

COMMENTS: Were I to pitch this disingenuously, I could make the case that this movie is weird. There’s the chanting dwarf woman in her wheelchair, in a cave. Willem Dafoe dances around a maypole with a dozen or so children. And at one point a dead fish in a metal dish utters some cryptic remarks. Cryptic, now, that’s something that Siberia has in a spades. Once again, Abel Ferrara is working with Willem Dafoe, who seems to keep the actor in his pocket for any art-house forays. And once again, Ferrara plumbs intensely personal depths, this latter-day habit depicted on-screen when Dafoe’s character falls down a chasm that appears in the basement of his Siberian tavern.

Clint (Willem Dafoe) tends bar and is intermittently attacked by demons—of the metaphorical variety, alas. He appears to be friends with a native (not a local Slavic Russian, but a Native native), without understanding a word of the hunter/trapper’s language. Clint also seems to know no Russian, as evidenced during a visit from a babushka, her daughter, and, indirectly, the third generation of that family: the unborn child in the daughter’s womb. This encounter is the first of a series of odd, possibly meaningful scenes involving Clint kneeling before a bare-breasted woman and then having sex with her.

Stylistically, Ferrara is a lingerer. He will keep his shot going until he’s satisfied, regardless how awkward it may make the viewer feel. There are obvious overtones of lust and fertility in the Clint/breast scenes, but they are executed in such a way that appreciation seems to morph into supplication, itself morphing into something less definable (but bordering on creepy). His gaze is not just salacious, however: it is filled with pathos. The graceful lines of Dafoe’s gaunt face shift in severity between awe and dismay and surprise, as in one moment he observes a sunrise in a subterranean lake, then witnesses a congregation of tormented ghosts in the cave, and the next moment listens to his dead father outline a fishing trip. This segment includes one of the film’s incongruous bursts of comedy as the two men (both played by Dafoe) converse: “Dad, don’t you remember what the doctor said?” asks Clint, “What was that?” responds the father. “He said you’re dead.”

There is a reliable floor to the quality of any Abel Ferrara film, going all the way back to his pseudonymously directed debut. He knows technique, form, dialogue, timing, all that. However, he’s going through a bit of a navel-gazing stage in his career. Some brief research gave no indication that Clint’s memories are the director’s own (though considering he wrote the screenplay, I have my suspicions); but regardless of whom Clint is based upon, Siberia is little more than a modestly surreal, moderately compelling, and much too cryptic slice of an old man’s mind.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This sort of visceral movie is about the experience, not the logic. Graphic nudity and violence ensure that scenes literally bleed from one to another. Along the way, the passages weave an odd and surreal continuity, with moments of quiet boredom that segue swiftly into ferocious visual jolts.” -Thomas Tunstall, Irish Film Critic (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: PUFNSTUF (1970)

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DIRECTED BY: Hollingsworth Morse

FEATURING: Jack Wild, Billie Hayes, , ‘Mama’ Cass Elliot,

PLOT: Stranded with his magic flute on Living Island, young Jimmy must team up with the isle’s magical minions to defeat a witch who will do anything to get the instrument.

Still from Pufnstuf (1970)

COMMENTS: Beloved and recognized by millions, the characters of ‘s signature TV series H.R. Pufnstuf (1969-1970) get their proper due in this feature film. Not only do we have many of the same core cast members from the series, but the TV series director helms the film; it was even shot on some of the same sets from the series. So we would expect this film to just be an extended episode, and it sort of is. It’s more of an encapsulation of the series, complete with beginning backstory and with several songs crammed in. This film’s release date (June 1969) is only a few months older than your humble author (September). It is therefore fitting that a Generation X native is here to guide you through the wild wacky Krofft universe, filled with sapient sea monsters, flying saucers, talking hats, mad scientists, and families lost in the Jurassic Era. In Pufnstuf‘s case, we get a whole magical island called “Living Island” populated by the titular Mayor dragon (voiced by Roberto Gamonet, a departure from series regular Lennie Weinrib) and besieged by a wicked witch named Wilhelmina W. Witchiepoo (Billie Hayes). The primary departure from the series the introduction of members of Witchiepoo’s, ah, coven, the “Witch’s Council,” with the flabbergasting casting combo of Cass Elliot and Martha Raye. Apparently witches have an authoritarian political structure, which might well have been a nod to Samantha Stephens’ supernatural lodge in the TV series Bewitched.

But leaving aside the matter of occult sorority organization, the plot is still formulaic, within its universe. Jimmy (the late Jack Wild) is kicked out of his school band in the first few minutes of the movie, which is the only interaction we see him have with the normal world. Next thing you know, his flute talks, a boat talks, and Jimmy sails to Living Island where everything else talks too. Suddenly Witchiepoo, cruising on a curiously steampunk broom that is prone to run out of gas and stall in the sky, appears, wanting Jimmy’s magic flute in the worst way. She attacks, Mayor Pufnstuf valiantly comes to the rescue despite never having seen this kid before in his life, and the whole plot becomes talking-flute MacGuffin. The Boss Witch calls on the “hot line,” a phone stored within a pot-belly stove so that it fries the hands of whoever answers it, to announce that the annual witches’ convention is to be hosted by our gal. So Witchiepoo is under pressure to do her union proud.

Show-stopper moments include: Team Living Island raiding Team Witchiepoo’s castle dressed as sham firefighters on pretense of extinguishing a fire (because that’s the first idea that popped into Continue reading CAPSULE: PUFNSTUF (1970)