The North Bend Film Festival runs through July 18. Online ticketing is available, but is geo-locked to residents of Washington, Oregon or Idaho. In the future, these movies may be available through alternate venues—stay tuned to this website for updates.

Cryptozoo (dir. Dash Shaw) – Of all the films available for online access at North Bend, ‘s Cryptozoo was the one that most caught my attention as a connoisseur of weird cinema. The animator/writer/director of My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea spreads his wings here with an equally absurd and fantastical, but decidedly more R-rated, take on “cryptids” (which in this case means mythological characters like gorgons, unicorns and Pegasuses more than modern legends like Bigfoot and Nessie). Set in the late 1960s, the premise is that these mutations really exist and are traded on the black market, with poorer collectors settling for alkonost feathers, while the ultra-rich enslave the critters themselves. Lauren is an agent who rescues cyptids from their captors and brings them to live at a special zoo/sanctuary run by her wealthy patron Joan. Meanwhile, the U.S. army is also in the cryptid-capturing biz, hoping to weaponize the creatures—especially the dream-eating baku (a creature also referenced Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer), an entity with whom Lauren has a special connection.

Cryptozoo (2021)I hinted that Cryptozoo is more “adult” than High School, a fact that’s immediately apparent from  the pre-title sequence, which includes both full-frontal nudity and unexpected unicorn violence. Human and cryptid players alike will spend much of the third act covered in blood. Shaw’s handmade, hand-animated style is like a series of graphic novel panels strung together, making for a choppy viewing experience that may alienate those accustomed to slick, big-budget Hollywood animation. But the compositions are eminently artistic: a sky full of new constellations, a golden-hued grazing unicorn, a naked woman standing in front of a will-o’-the-wisp light show. There isn’t one big psychedelic sequence like High School‘s drowning, but miniature hallucinations are scattered throughout, like a pink fetal head flopping out of a purple and green egg . There’s even a throwaway dream of storming the capital (only this time, the rioters are hippies bringing in an egalitarian utopia). The well-researched creature designs are fascinating, and you can expect to see most of your favorites (especially if you’re into Greek mythology), as well as many unfamiliar ones. Cryptozoo also features a top-notch collection of voiceover talent (Lake Bell, , , )—but it’s the artwork that dazzles here. Cryptozoo already has a distributor and should be released to theaters later this year—if you’re a fan of trippy animation, you should check it out.

Code Name: Nagasaki (dir. Fredrik Hana, by Fredrik Hana and Marius Lunde) – Fredrik is an aspiring filmmaker, as is his loyal actor pal Marius. Marius is also half Norwegian, half Japanese (Scandinasian?) His Japanese mother abandoned the family when he was a little child. So what else would a pair of film-geek twentysomethings do when Marius decides he wants to track down his missing “mama-san” but document the search on camera?

Still from Code Name: Nagasaki (2021)While the situation is inherently affecting, there’s not a lot of action involved, as Marius makes phone calls to the Japanese embassy and a private detective in Nagasaki. While we wait, Code Name: Nagasaki indulges itself in short vignettes that explore Marius’ emotional states through various film styles. So it begins as a samurai epic (dubbed “Blade of the Forgotten”) when Marius announces his intention to seek his destiny, turns into a film noir as he begins his investigation, and uses horror movie scenes to signal apprehension. We concurrently witness a documentary and the behind-the-scenes making of the mini-films, seeing Marius made up in ghostly black and white demon makeup for the horror sequences, getting a peek at the casting for an actress to play the mother, and watching as Fredrik films Marius walking along the beach in samurai attire or silhouetted against the sunset in gumshoe getup. The final scenes are animated. Nagasaki treads similar ground to 2020’s Dick Johnson Is Dead, but without the active participation of the parent. In this case, the film’s two styles—straightforward documentary mixed with cinematic tributes—don’t entirely complement each other. The sense that this exercise is all a calling card for a debut feature sits uneasily alongside Marius’ pure impulse to reconnect with his mother. And even at a trim 70 minutes, there’s a lot of waiting around. Without the homages, this could have been a moving short documentary. Still, in the end Marius’ story is sufficiently poignant to make Nagasaki worth the effort.

Ayar (dir. Floyd Russ) – Ayar begins with montage of what looks like audition footage intercut with cellular mitosis, followed by scenes of a little girl, a balloon, and a glimpse of a shamanic figure in a field. We’re then formally introduced to Ayar, a Peruvian immigrant who has just left her job as a singer in Vegas so she can spend time with her daughter. But she arrives home just as the Covid-19 pandemic hits, and her mother, who’s been taking care of her five-year-old, refuses to let her see the kid—ostensibly as a health precaution, though we sense there are deeper issues at play. The setting is ominous, with pandemic paranoia forefronted: everyone wears masks, insists on social distancing, and Ayar suspects that the coughing woman in the motel room next to her is Covid positive. More information is given in flashbacks, along with hints that Ayar’s perceptions may not be completely accurate.

Still from Ayar (2021)Ayar‘s first half plays like a drama enlivened by horror tropes, then turns into a drama enlivened by metamovie tropes. You see, in the middle of the movie, things change dramatically: it’s not quite what you would call a “twist,” and “gimmick” is too belittling; perhaps it’s best termed an “experimental stylistic choice.” Whatever you call it, you’ll know it when you see it, and your reaction to this gamble may determine whether you love or hate this movie. It simultaneously deepens your understanding of the narrative while taking you completely out of it. I am not entirely sure the experiment works, but it is a nice try, and the attempt makes this project more noteworthy than a typical immigrant drama would be. Although the more eerie and horrific montages may remind you of , is the more precise touchstone here. This is the English-language film debut of Ariana Ron Pedrique, a talented actress (and former model) and a reasonable singer; I would not be shocked to see bigger things from her in the future. Co-writer Vilma Vega plays Ayar’s mother, a role that seems relatively minor at first but which grows in significance. We get to know both these actresses surprisingly well.

Ninjababy (dir. Yngvild Sve Flikke) – Despite taking precautions, aimless party girl and aspiring cartoonist Rakel finds herself knocked up. She dubs the fetus who’s snuck its way inside her “ninjababy,” thanks to its extreme stealth and preternatural ability to evade contraception. Rakel isn’t ready for, or much interested in, motherhood, but due to a plot complication she’ll be having the baby anyway. So who will raise ninjababy? Rakel herself, the baby’s father, or an adoptive parent? And how will the pregnancy affect her love life, since she’s fiercely independent but now finds herself with a couple of suitors, including the memorable “Dick Jesus”?

Poster for Ninjababy (2021)Ninjababy filled with whimsical magical realist moments, frequently related to Raskel’s cartoonist vocation: animated sparks flying off Rakel’s clenched palm, and the new mother’s imaginary dialogues with the titular character (who wears a bandito mask and pushes for Angelina Jolie as its adoptive mother). Other breaks from reality include a sex scene flashback playing picture-in-picture inside of another scene. These touches fall short of making the film truly weird—it essentially follows the beats of a romantic comedy —but they do mark it as something off the beaten Hollywood path.  It’s eccentric and edgy without being off-putting,  should do well in its home territory, and it’s got potential crossover appeal between fans of mainstream comedies and slacker indie dramadies. It’s a polished product: the acting is on point (especially the believably complex Kristine Kujath Thorp), and it’s got that character development thing mainstream cinemagoers crave, yet it’s still quirky enough to garner outsider cred, with a feminist bent that’s handled lightly. It even has a dark turn in the third act when Rakel briefly gives in to postpartum self-loathing. A little bit reminiscent of Juno, Ninjababy is a low-key winner, and has an outside shot to break out of the festival circuit to wider success—if only audiences get the chance to see it.


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