A best man very temporarily calms down the groom at a wedding by hitting a few pressure points.
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DIRECTED BY: Shinya Tsukamoto
FEATURING: Cocco, Shinya Tsukamoto
PLOT: A young mother suffering from violent hallucinations loses custody of her son before a mild-mannered novelist enters her life.
COMMENTS: As my trip through Shinya Tsukamoto’s back-catalogue continues, my appreciation for his genius grows. Kotoko manages to be the most straightforward of his films while also being the most disturbing. There is no metal grafting, no superhuman violence, and, despite the narrator’s unreliability, the action is grounded in the mundane. The dark, harrowing side of the mundane. Perhaps not “weird” for our purposes (though it comes close), Kotoko stands out among the auteur’s typical work—and proves that Tuskamoto’s toolkit of perturbation extends far beyond his “typical” mechano-nihilistic visions.
We first meet Kotoko (J-Pop star “Cocco”) as she narrates how she sees “double”. At any moment Kotoko, may witness someone doing one thing—reading along with a toddler, say—only to see that person’s double as well, typically acting as a raging, violent id. She is aware of her condition, an affliction she can only ward off through song. Her sole motivation for enduring is her infant son. After a dramatic breakdown spurred by a child’s screams and spilled stir-fry, the boy is taken into her sister’s custody. Kotoko’s latent self-destructive tendencies worsen until she meets a quiet writer (Shinya Tuskamoto), who overhears her singing on a bus and decides to stalk her.
The first act is unsettling, the third act is nigh-on devastating. But the second—that’s where Kotoko is most bizarre. “What madness ensues?,” you ask. Amazingly, none. The film’s middle tranche is the “romantic comedy” filling of an otherwise dispiriting donut of a story. Cocco and Tsukamoto have a magical, socially inept chemistry. As a shy and somewhat bumbling literary celebrity, Tuskamoto adds “awkward romantic interest” to his acting arsenal (previously limited to “metal fetishist” and “emotionally benumbed salaryman”). During one of his stalking-visits, he fears the worst when Kotoko doesn’t answer her door, so he breaks in and finds her bleeding on her bathroom floor. Kotoko reaches almost mad-cap levels of silly dialogue and physical comedy as he charges back and forth between the bathroom and the place where she keeps the towels, always grabbing the wrong piece of fabric, while Kotoko patiently and bleedingly gestures and corrects him.
Had this continued, Kotoko would deserve a place amongst our esteemed, weird titles. That it does not isn’t a failure in filmmaking, of course, but a testament to the versatility of Tsukamoto. Instead, the rom-com provides the audience a much-needed breather between the setting up and knocking down of the titular heroine. Kotoko is something of a vanity project for the famous J-Pop star, but it is one of the oddest celebrity vehicles I’ve ever seen. Whether teary-eyed, widely smiling, writhing, singing, or dancing, Cocco exhibits a violent vulnerability not typically associated with mega-stars. With Tsukamoto, she finds the perfect technician to bring her vision to life; with Cocco, Tsukamoto gets to prove that whatever the story is, he can tell it–even if there aren’t any gears, cogs, or drill-bits.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…few films can claim to give such an uncompromising view of what it must be like to be crazy, as seen from the inside. Cronenberg’s ‘Videodrome’ comes to mind, or Polanski’s ‘Repulsion.’ Both of these films are not the easiest to watch, especially when seen for the first time, and ‘Kotoko’ is a lot like that.” -Ard Vijn, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)
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DIRECTED BY: Sean Hogan, Andrew Parkinson,
FEATURING: Jodie Jameson, Luke de Lacey, Siubhan Harrison, Holly Lucas, Tom Sawyer, Kate Braithwaite
PLOT: Three anthologized shorts: a wealthy couple toys with a homeless girl, an ex-junkie and ex-prostitute joins a pharmaceutical trial, and a young couple’s sadomasochistic relationship turns sour.
COMMENTS: For weird purposes, we can dispose of two of the three sexually-charged horrors that make up Little Deaths quickly. The opener, “House & Home,” is a well-produced but obvious R-rated “Twilight Zone” thing where a couple who exploit homeless women find the tables turned. Even though you might not guess the exact details, the twist is something less than a surprise when it arrives. The closer, “Bitch,” is a bit more involving because of its depiction of unusual fetishes (canine roleplay among them) in the context of a very dysfunctional S&M relationship, and its exceptionally cruel ending. It’s essentially sleazy sex life portraiture, though with a climax that’s equal parts troubling and ridiculous.
That leaves the middle segment, “Mutant Tool,” which is indeed about as weird as its title suggests. The central character is Jen, a recovering junkie and ex-prostitute who’s finding it hard to go straight. Her drug-dealing boyfriend enrolls her in an experimental pharmaceutical treatment with a major side effect: she hallucinates about a strange man (or monster) hanging in a cage. The plot gradually brings an old Nazi experiments and a develops a cyclical pharmaceutical ecosystem somewhat reminiscent of the one in Upstream Color (2013) (if less rigorously developed). The film is visually murky, with only brief glimpses of the dingy mutant behind a face shield and a shower curtain, though the restrained imagery can be effective—and there is one WTF closeup that is both creepy and sort of funny. The exposition can be a bit clumsy: Jen keeps taking calls from her escort agency, even though she claims to be no longer working for them, just so we can sense the pressure she’s under. And there’s a crusty old caretaker character who keeps coming up with excuses to volunteer mutant backstory to a trainee. Plus, it seems like an awfully bad idea for Frank to refer Jen to Dr. Reese, considering the ghoulish nature of his prior dealings with the physician. Still, if you can overlook those narrative shortcuts, “Mutant Tool” has a strong and weird conceit, and also has the only likeable characters in the triptych—Jen and Frank are lowlifes, sure, but they’re at least trying to escape from the horror rather than hurtling into it like the others.
Although perversity abounds throughout, and “Mutant Tool” perks some interest for seekers of the eerie, none of Little Deaths offerings are essential shock-horror. But at thirty minutes each, none of them outstay their welcome, either.
Little Deaths has been accused of misogyny, and although there’s some basis for the charge (e.g. the uncomfortable verbal lingering over a rape scene), it’s overblown in general. In Little Deaths, people are simply cruel to one another, and males are victims as much as females. The one exception might be that final episode, Rumley’s provocatively-titled “Bitch,” which invites (though doesn’t demand) the misogyny-minded to identify with its emasculated antihero. To their credit, the directors do anticipate these charges and address them in a series of interviews included on the DVD—although Parkinson has nothing to answer for, and Rumley glibly dismisses the objection with a shrug.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…three tales of the strange, the weird, and the fantastic… ‘Mutant Tool’ is Andrew Parkinson’s way-strange contribution… [‘Mutant Tool’] is some pretty weird and (to use the word yet again) ‘dark’ stuff, made all the more so by being played as straight drama… LITTLE DEATHS as a whole is pleasantly unsettling and worth watching for horror fans on the lookout for something different.”–Porfle Popnecker, “HK and Cult Film News” (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by “Donatien,” who qualified his recommendation: “i don’t think all three short films can be classified as weird, only the 3rd one.” Maybe he misremembered the order of the tales? Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
Japanese teen pop idols promote their work a little differently, as seen in this bouncy video where Kyary Pamyu Pamyu happily vomits ravens and eyeballs. The director is uncredited (at least in English), but Yasutaka Nakata wrote and produced the music.
A doctor gives suspect health information in this absurdist medical satire from 366 fave.
An adult and a teenager take a break from their journey to trespass in a motel pool. Who they are and where they’re going becomes more mysterious when they’re caught by the motel clerk. This short has since been made into a full-length film under the same name.
Content Warning: This short contains adult subject matter.
FEATURING: Don Hertzfeldt (narration)
PLOT: In the first chapter, “Everything Will Be OK,” delusions and hallucinations caused by an unspecified mental disorder impede the progress of stick figure Bill’s everyday life and leave him in and out of the hospital. Bill begins chapter 2, “I Am So Proud of You,” with flashbacks to his childhood, although his memories of his equally insane relatives are so strange that they may also be hallucinations. In chapter 3, “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” Bill is again recuperating in the hospital, now with major memory loss, but with an impulse to visit an address he vaguely recalls.
- The character of Bill initially appeared in Don Hertzfeldt’s brief webcomic series “Anesthetics.” The strip foreshadowed the surreal humor of the early parts of the film, but did not suggest that Bill was suffering from mental illness.
- It’s Such a Beautiful Day is the feature-length compilation version of a series of medium-short films, beginning with “Everything Will Be OK” in 2006 and followed by “I Am So Proud of You” in 2008 before the final installment, “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” arrived in 2011.
- Hertzfeldt photographed the movie in 35mm so that optical effects could be mixed with the animation.
- “Everything Will Be OK” won the Sundance Grand Prize for Short film on its release.
- Hertzfeldt launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to release It’s a Beautiful Day on Blu-ray along with World of Tomorrow and other selected shorts.
- Voted #16 on Time Out’s 2016 poll of the 100 Best Animated Movies Ever Made and #1 on File Stage’s 2016 list of Best Animated Films of the Twentieth Century So Far.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The is movie is a continuous progression of images… most of them of black and white stick figures, although they are often grotesquely entertaining stick figures with monstrous fish heads growing out of their skulls. The most memorable effects mix Hertzfeldt’s line animation with real life photography. We picked one of Bill standing on a mesa gazing at a sunset, but you might prefer the scene of he and his stick girlfriend lying in the grass looking up at a canopy of leaves, or when he walks down the street and the pedestrians flicker back and forth between flesh and blood people and line figures. These sequences suggest inadequate fantasy wrestling with flawed perception, one of the movie’s major themes.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Fishy brain tumor; snake-necked cosmic stickman; immortal schizophrenic
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Humble stick figure animation mixes with advanced experimental film techniques in this chronicle of the life of a character suffering from an unspecified mental illness. It’s Such a Beautiful Day‘s juxtaposition of the mundane and the cosmic caused some critics to hail it as a less pretentious, less humorless answer to The Tree of Life. Don Hertzfeldt would continue to examine the themes introduced here—the prominence and arbitrariness of memory, the mixture of sadness and wonder that make up life—in his next piece, the Oscar-nominated World of Tomorrow. I believe Tomorrow goes down as Hertzfeldt’s masterpiece so far—at 41 years of age, he still has a long way to go—but It’s Such a Beautiful Day is nearly its equal, and is a better fit for this List due to its feature-length, surrealistic humor, and far-out hallucination scenes that suggest the final moments of 2001 reimagined by a team led by and Charles Schultz.
Trailer for It’s Such a Beautiful Day
COMMENTS: Although It’s Such a Beautiful Day is technically a compendium of three short films developed over a period of five years, it Continue reading 334. IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY (2011)