Category Archives: Reader Recommendations

READER RECOMMENDATION: SUPER MARIO BROS. (1993)

Reader Review by John Klingle

DIRECTED BY: Annabel Jankel, Rocky Morton

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: Two plumbers from Brooklyn are unwittingly warped into an alternate dimension populated by human-dinosaur hybrids, and  discover a plot to invade the Earth that only they can prevent.

Still from Super Mario Bros. (1993)

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The fugitive Princess Daisy discovers her long lost father, the King: a sentient mass of yellow fungus drooping from the ceiling above his old throne.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Combining slapstick humor and trite wordplay with a penchant for grotesque visuals and fascist imagery completely disconnected from its beloved source material, Super Mario Bros. seems determined to shock and disturb its supposed target audience.

COMMENTS: The original sin of video game-to-movie adaptations, Super Mario Bros. is widely regarded as a transgression against its beloved source material and a discordant mish-mash of half-baked, poorly-executed ideas. But while it’s true that the film is unforgivable as an adaptation, looking at Super Mario Bros. for its own merits reveals a unique Gothic fantasy filled with psychedelic imagery.

Rather than making any real effort to replicate the experience of playing Shigeru Miyamoto’s foundational game series, Super Mario Bros. instead takes the bare skeleton of the Mario games and builds its own dystopian adventure around it. The elements the film plucks from the games are well-chosen ingredients for a cult film, too: it borrows the game series’ central fish-out-of-water fantasy world conceit (The Wizard of Oz), its recurring theme of bodily transformation (Videodrome), and its visual obsession with ducts and pipes (Brazil ) and, of course, mushrooms (“,” take your pick). The filmmakers (“Max Headroom” creators Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton) unfortunately don’t manage to create any sense of cohesion among these various elements, but this doesn’t prevent each of them from being deeply memorable on its own.

Mixed in liberally with these ingredients from the games are the film’s own inventions, whose connection to the Mario universe is much more tenuous. The most notable of these is the corporate fascist imagery. The movie adaptation re-imagines the games’ draconic King Koopa as a Donald Trump-like plutocrat who runs a mechanized police state under the guise of democracy. This conceit is perhaps the film’s most powerful source of tonal dissonance: the bumbling, Stooges-like antics of Koopa’s minions do little to detract from the horror of seeing a street busker forcibly converted into a devolved monster as punishment for political dissidence.

Much like Labyrinth, Super Mario Bros.’ commitment, however lackluster, to being a commercial children’s film prevents it from pursuing its darker themes to any satisfying conclusion. In some ways, this makes it all the more disturbing; the film consistently dips its toes into dystopian or psychosexual territory only to retreat back into John Leguizamo and Bob Hoskins’ yukking and shucking, depriving the viewer of any catharsis. Super Mario Bros. is a movie that doesn’t leave you, its most bizarre moments sticking like burrs to the minds of the children who saw it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bizarre, replete in often stunning special effects and verrrry strange from the outset, Super Mario Bros is curiously entertaining, even though it often makes little sense.” – Roger Hurlburt, South Florida Sun Sentinel (contemporaneous)

READER RECOMMENDATION: ESCORIANDOLI (1996)

AKA Trash – T.R.A.

Reader recommendation by “Tracian”

DIRECTED BY: Antonio Rezza

FEATURING: Antonio Rezza, Valeria Golino, Claudia Gerini, Isabella Ferrari, Valentina Cervi

PLOT: Five connected stories where the protagonist is always played by Rezza. An affair during a funeral is spiced up by the occasional comments of the deceased; the two lovers of a woman suddenly exchange their ages; a terminally bored girl is forced to join a totalitarian rehab clinic; a poet consumes his life searching for forgiveness for having stepped on a man’s toe; and a professional event-crasher loses control of his own body and is forced to cut it to pieces until only the head remains.

Still from Escoriandoli (1996)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Because it is a rare example of an arthouse film that is not pretentious but actually fun, highly committed to weirdness and yet serious in its (admittedly well-hidden) message.

COMMENTS: While you have to understand Italian to fully appreciate the lyrical, offbeat and hilarious dialogues, everyone will be amazed by the physical and vocal contortions of the protagonist(s). Pretty much everything in Escoriandoli (the title itself is a pun that roughly means “confetti-like joy in excoriating them”) is odd: an example may be how all the actors on a bus react to its movements—although the vehicle is explicitly shown as being still—but almost no scene can be considered “normal”.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Italian surreal comedy consisting of a series of satirical vignettes… Fun at times, but the acting is way too silly.”–Zev Toledano, The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre

READER RECOMMENDATION: BORGMAN

Reader review by Hendrik Jacobus Mostert. Also see Ryan Aarset’s official List Candidate review.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Hadewych Minis, Jeroen Perceval

PLOT: A mysterious drifter invades the home of an upper-class family, only to bring chaos into their lives.

Still from Borgman (2013)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The main character, Camiel (Bijvoet) unleashes extreme psychological torment on a family who takes him in and cares for him. The viewer questions his motives (and those of his “accomplices”) as no justification or explanation is given for their strange and questionable actions, leaving the viewer perplexed throughout the entire experience.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Three bodies floating upside-down in a river with buckets of cement covering their heads.

COMMENTS: One of the most apparent themes in this film is that of psychological manipulation and the trust we have in strangers. Camiel, who is the stranger, quickly gains the trust of a woman, and she allows him to stay at their house. Working under the guise of a gardener, he brings his “accomplices” along to renovate the estate. His accomplices are complete strangers, but the family have trust in them because they consider Camiel as trustworthy. What is most unsettling is that trust quickly turns into a type of master/slave situation in which Camiel and his cronies can get away with extremely questionable behavior. A good example of this is the scene where the “accomplices” lead the children into a bunker where they drink suspicious red cool-aid and have some type of surgery performed on them. The disturbing aspect of this scene is already self-evident, but what makes it more disturbing is the fact that the children are willing participants, almost like they are part of a cult and have to undergo some kind of ritual/ initiation. The children never mention this to their parents, again reinforcing the idea of complete trust in strangers, for reasons which remain a mystery to the viewer.

FUN FACT: The director, Alex van Warmerdam, plays a role as one of Borgman’s “accomplices”.

 

READER RECOMMENDATION: STOCKHOLM (2013)

Reader review by Careina Marcos

DIRECTED BY: Rodrigo Sorogoyen

FEATURING: Javier Pereira, Aura Garrido

PLOT:  A guy tries to get a girl to notice him at a party but she refuses, and the story continues in a long and interesting conversations until he manages to gain her attention.

Still from Stockholm (2013)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Not your typical romance film. It’s not the usual guy-gets-the-girl or they-had-a-happy-ending kind of movie.  Its strangeness, mysteriousness, and persuasiveness will surprise you, frighten you, crush you, then kill you.

COMMENTS: The movie starts with a usual conversation between guys at a night club. Javier Pereira  approaches and declares to Aura Garrido that he is in love with her. She initially rejects him, but he persists, following her and engaging in a continuous conversation about life and love around the late-night streets of Madrid. They end up walking together until they reach Pereira’s apartment. They have a cat-and-mouse moment, with Garrido testing him about his real motives as he expertly dresses up his desire for sex. She had doubts, though they are both disengaged from their emotions, playing roles. The next morning, after Pereira gets what he desired, they have some troubling chat but end up in his building’s rooftop to have a coffee in the cold light of day. It’s also their first time to find out who they really are and that they’re seeking entirely different things. They’ve had a lot of talks, but neither has been telling the truth.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Director Rodrigo Sorogoyen (known for his TV work in Spain) deconstructs the behavior that leads to one-night stands in this warped, genre-bending sort-of romance… a strong start in cinema for Sorogoyen, and a fine twist on the walk-and-talk romance, but its final act is too writer-y to fit in among what was previously established as a realism-minded drama.”–Taylor Sinople, The Focus Pull (festival screening)

READER RECOMMENDATION: CRIMES OF THE FUTURE (1970)

Reader review by Rafael Moreira

DIRECTED BY:

CAST: Ronald Mlodzik, Jon Lidolt, Tania Zolty

PLOT: Adrian Tripod, director of a dermatological clinic called House of Skin, wanders in search of his mentor, Antoine Rouge, who has mysteriously disappeared after a catastrophic plague related to cosmetic products kills the entire population of sexually mature women.

Still from Crimes of the Future (1970)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Crimes of the Future is chock full of Cronenberg’s characteristic, and characteristically weird, themes of the relationship between the mind and body and their fragilities and possible degradations. What makes it different from his future efforts is that the film’s null budget renders it underproduced, alienated and experimental in ways that both augment its weirdness and undermines its cinematicness. The fact that it is shot silent with a commentary added later only feeds the dreamy, disassociated atmosphere.

COMMENTS: Crimes of the Future was the venerated and singular ‘s second film, made, like his first (Stereo), with minimal resources. Despite being his most inaccessible works, the main surprise is how these early films reflect Cronenberg’s unique, consistent persona and the preoccupations on which he has meditated in his whole oeuvre.

Crimes‘s practically nonexistent budget both limits and enhances its weirdness. On one hand, Cronenberg’s signature ideas are denied full realization, but his way of working around the lack of resources lends the film an utterly abstract presentation. One could describe the movie as a seemingly disconnected succession of scenes of people interacting and behaving strangely in clinical spaces and shadowy corridors, only made meaningful by the somnambulant commentary of Ronald Mlodzik. Another key agent of weirdness is the truly bizarre soundscape that Cronenberg crafted, which, when not silent, consists mostly of indistinct atmospheric sounds and white noise. There are very few moments where the music seems to be in tune with what’s happening on screen, rather than serving as an obscure, sometimes disturbing background ambiance.

The film’s glacial tone and sense of detachment is reminiscent of THX 1138 at times. The audience’s reliance on the commentary by protagonist Adrian Tripod to make sense of the movie’s distant, cryptic images further increases its dreamlike quality. Sometimes, the narration is itself bizarre, as it has to communicate the insular world where Crimes takes places—a world that, while visually familiar, is otherworldly in its character’s strange behaviors, its enigmatic corporations and, of course, the central premise of its sudden defeminization.

The most curious aspect of the experience of watching Crimes is noting how, even under the restrictive budget and obscuring experimental approach, Cronenberg’s defining obsessions of the flesh, body, sexuality, disease, and mutation are all present in full force. If one can get past the film’s impenetrable nature, Tripod’s regular voice-over actually reveals a typically surreal, purely Cronenbergian narrative rich in visceral details. As he journeys through a succession of organizations, the odd individuals he meets all present a form of derangement or peculiarity reflective of Cronenberg’s themes, as each of them adapts to the great change in their own way. For instance, a former colleague of Tripod from the “Institute of Neo-Venereal Disease” has contracted a “creative cancer” from one of his patients, causing his body to continually form a series of organs that are removed in what many have interpreted as a parody of childbirth, while a concierge believes he is developing a root-like antenna from his nostrils as an evolutionary step.

Crimes feels like a sketch of the director’s imagination, fully revealing the sensibility behind his more mellow and professional works, but shadowed by its foggy experimentality and lack of resources. If patient weirdophiles can go with Cronenberg’s pretense of crafting more of a film experiment than a film, they will find it an undeniably interesting, if hard to watch, experience.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… where Stereo was both creepy and austere, Crimes of the Future gives its remarkable characters more room to breathe and, in their own weird way, to play, picking their way around a modernist compound and narrated retroactively by the main character. It is fascinating viewing, and it’s always interesting to note what an acclaimed, spiky filmmaker was doing in his early career.”–Juliette Jones, PopOptiq (DVD)

[Crimes of the Future is included, along with Stereo, as bonus features on Blue Underground’s release of Cronenberg’s Fast Company–ed.]

READER RECOMMENDATION: MOTIVATIONAL GROWTH (2013)

Reader Recommendation by Bryan Pike

DIRECTED BY: Don Thacker

FEATURING: Adrian DiGiovanni, , Danielle Doetsch, Pete Giovagnoli, Ken Brown

PLOT: Ian Folivor, a depressed and reclusive 30-something, finds himself taking advice from a fungal growth in his bathroom after a failed suicide attempt.

Still from Motivational Growth (2014)

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The film’s lead impossibly suspended horizontally while sucking greedily from a wall-mounted fungal teat, followed closely by the animatronic mold itself.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: That the protagonist communicates with a talking fungus is strange enough to warrant potential inclusion, but for a movie limited to the confines of an apartment this film takes on a truly epic and bizarre scope, with spore-induced hallucinations involving infomercials and B-grade science fiction TV shows, demonic TV repairmen, a bathroom murder and dismemberment, a sweet romantic sub-plot and by the film’s close, genuine questions as to what of the preceding 104 mins was real or imagined.

COMMENTS: “The Mold knows, Jack, The Mold knows…”

Normally when considering the first feature of an independent film director one makes allowances for certain technical shortcomings: out of focus shots, poor film stock, a bump in a dolly shot or two, things obvious to the seasoned film viewer but which are ignored in good faith and focus given to the storytelling or performances. There is no such necessity in this film, there are no such flaws to note. In terms of technical craft alone this is easily the most impressive debut I’ve seen from any feature director; the rich and developed performances and storytelling are equally impressive.

The aforementioned fungal teat sequence, the circuitous, overhead crane shots of Ian on his filthy couch, and even a quasi-bullet time shot of the lead falling in the bathroom; are all ambitious, complex shots which are executed effortlessly. The grimy, festering detritus of Ian’s depression made manifest in the scattered garbage filling his apartment is an impressive feat of art direction.

I’d classify it as an absurdist, theatrical, sitcom take on Enter the Void, at least in the sense of a post-death hallucinatory journey (or is it?). It features a shut-in who attempts suicide and is then given a new lease on life by an enormous fungus growing in his bathroom. “The Mold”, an animatronic puppet voiced by Jeffrey Combs, guides our protagonist back to a clean, regular life—if sucking from wall-mounted fungal teats, altercations with demonic TV repairmen, and dream sequences involving infomercials can be considered “regular”.

The puppet for “The Mold” is a refreshing break from the digital in our overly-CGI’ed times, reminiscent of the impressive practical effects from 80’s films like The Thing or The Howling. Jeffrey Comb’s assured, mellifluous voice is the perfect contrast to the wired, intense performance of Adrian Giovanni. The 8-bit music, while fitting the period (early 90’s) and the aesthetic of Thacker’s Imagos production company, is occasionally jarring compared to the action on screen. Although varied and amusing, the TV infomercials playing on Ian’s unit, “Kent” are perhaps the weakest aspect of the film; this satire of vapid and bombastic TV programming has been done better elsewhere, notably Fight Club, or, let’s be honest, the better moments of SNL. To Thacker’s credit it would be difficult at this stage to bring something fresh and inventive to such satire, given the sheer glut of both modern television programs and subsequent parodies.

Ian also merges with these TV programs in some kind of day dream or hallucination, with television’s Kent accusing Ian of betrayal, saying that he “looked after him” long before (the Mold?) did. In the overall context of the film it remains unclear whether Kent is a separate character and rival to the Mold for Ian’s allegiance. Is Kent—who often uses the same language as The Mold—merely an extension of it? The ambiguity employed is merely distracting, rather than serving as an engaging mystery within the film.

The only other complaint one could make of the film are that the level of technical innovation and impressive camera feats drop off towards the end (though this is more a reflection of the story taking prominence over on-screen auteur flourishes at that stage), and that the ambiguous ending leaves one feeling dissatisfied. At various points during the film it is hinted that Ian is dead (or at the very least that “someone” has died) and that our film experience is a hallucinatory afterlife trip inside Ian’s head. But this is arguably the least satisfying outcome or final premise for the film. Isn’t the buildup towards Ian’s “improvement” and the possibilities this direction takes us in (i.e. what are the Mold’s designs for Ian within the larger world outside the apartment?) more intriguing than “oh, Ian’s dead and this is him working things out in the afterlife as his corpse is consumed by mold”? I may have simply been hoping for a different film based on the initial premise than what transpired.

Ultimately, despite these minor misgivings, the film remains an impressive and vastly entertaining debut feature that rewards subsequent viewings for more details as to the nature of what we’ve witnessed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…you can categorize Motivational Growth under “The Weird,” and I mean that as a true compliment.”–Matt Donato, We Got This Covered (contmeporaneous)

READER RECOMMENDATION: LOVE (2015)

Reader recommendation by Careina Marcos

DIRECTED BY: Gaspar Noé

FEATURING: Aomi Muyock, Karl Glusman, Klara Kristin

PLOT: A couple from Paris who are intensively driven in sexual and emotional desire which leads them into inviting a pretty girl next door in fulfilling their fantasy.

Still from Love (2015)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: DUDE, IT’S DIRECTED BY GASPAR NOÉ. You’ll know it if you’ve seen Enter the Void.

COMMENTS: The movie starts with a narration of an American man. At first, I thought it was a sequel to Enter The Void. I thought that the man behind the voice was the reincarnation of Oscar. You’ll also see The Love Hotel in Murphy’s room, which would probably make you think the same. Murphy, the man behind the voice, is madly in love with this French girl, Electra. They believe that they are the best couple ever. Then the fear of every couple comes: cheating. One night, after making love while smoking a joint, Murphy asks Electra about her fantasy. His fantasy, as any man’s, it is to have sex with another woman. Electra agrees with Murphy’s taste in fantasy, which is a blonde girl. One day, they see this blonde chick who just moved in around their building. The couple invite her to eat and one thing led to another. They find themselves doing each other. Electra is very gentle and passionate about her. As time passes, when Electra has to leave town, Murphy itches to touch the young chick once again, until he gets her pregnant. The struggle of this couple to get back on track is the most destructive thing ever. He supports the kid and the blond chick. They live in his apartment. Murphy’s guilt eats him inside, leaving him to take opium that Electra gives him, as it makes him feel like he’s with Electra once again. This movie is filled with drugs, sex, and regrets.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…you’ve gotta hand it to Noe for leaving no taboo unturned, and for putting so much of himself into a film that’s bound to leave titillation seekers resenting its creator during the long stretches of wallowing introspection between climaxes.”–Peter Debruge, Variety (contemporaneous)