Tag Archives: 2017

CAPSULE: THE MAN WITH THE MAGIC BOX (2017)

Czlowiek z magicznym pudelkiem

DIRECTED BY: Bodo Kox

FEATURING: Piotr Polak, Olga Boladz, Sebastian Stankiewicz

PLOT: In Warsaw in the near future, an amnesiac man (whose memory may have been wiped by the government) goes to work as a janitor and falls in love with a superior, but the past inevitably catches up to him.

Still from The Man with the Magic Box (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it has a record player that plays postcards, a radio that tunes itself to the self-hypnosis channel, and a government that’s possibly putting hallucinogenic drugs in the water supply, it’s not quite strange enough for us. It is well outside the boundaries of what an average person expects to find in a low budget dystopian sci-fi thriller, however.

COMMENTS: Specialty distributor Artsploitation fulfills a crucial film niche by taking chances on arty, low-budget genre fare from (mostly) outside the English-speaking world. I’m discovering a pattern, however: always skip their horror offerings, and take a flier on their weird fantasy or sci-fi offerings. You may find a hit or two. The Man with the Magic Box fits that general strategy, and although it’s not a breakout film for the distributor, it is an interesting one.

Magic Box takes place a mere 13 years in the future. Its dystopian aspirations echo Brazil and Blade Runner, it name checks Men in Black, and it pays direct homage to a scene in Fight Club, but despite all the tributes to his influences, Bodo Kox’s film does become its own thing. If you can swallow the big, implausible plot twist, your hundred minutes in Warsaw, 2030 will be well-spent.

This future society feels more advanced than a single decade forward in time; but at the same time it’s a cinematically familiar future, and one that’s anxious to create a deliberate link to Poland’s Communist past. At first, placing amnesiac Adam in a pre-WWII-era flat seems like a cost-cutting measure to save precious prop money that might be spent on futuristic doo-dads, but it turns out there is a purpose behind the setting—it allows Adam to find the titular “magic box.” The film alternates between scenes set in 2013 and in the past, with a few set entirely in the “superconsciousness” or in a virtual reality “Alice in Wonderland” themed park. The World of Tomorrow utilizes an antiseptic silver-blue metallic color scheme, while a grungy sepia-brown denotes the past. Secret police roam both landscapes. The future is full of cost-conscious innovations like cybernetic eyes, invisible cell phones, pets that resemble robotic vacuum cleaners, talking mailboxes, and limited Internet access, along with a few big effects like a terrorist attack that levels a skyscraper. The film uses its limited CGI budget with considerable economy to create a universe that feels fairly real.

Piotr Polak’s Adam is a bit of a blank slate. He’s an awkward weirdo, but he doesn’t attract too much attention because everyone in the future is a self-absorbed weirdo, oblivious to other people’s eccentricities. The closest thing Adam finds to a friend is Sebastian, the autistic janitor who trains him for his new minimum wage job and who lives in a closet. But it’s Adam’s fast-talking, model-skinny love interest Gloria (Olga Boladz), a hot-to-trot executive at the miscellaneous firm where Adam is sent to clean, who makes the biggest impression. She’s odd even by this world’s standards, addicted slumming it with attractive custodians in a world where any interest in sex appears to be fairly taboo. And, she can really pull off an optical illusion hoop skirt. Gloria starts at the periphery but moves towards the center as the film progresses.

In true 1984 fashion, the apparatchiks of The Man in the Magic Box try to stamp out romantic love as the final obstacle to complete loyalty to the State. As previously mentioned, the film explicitly draws parallels between Communist Poland and the world of the near future it prophesies. The depressing implication is that totalitarianism the natural state of Poland (and possibly of humanity), and any other system is a temporary aberration.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…stylish and eccentric, but… also disciplined and coherent…”-Ola Salwa, Cineuropa (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MFKZ (2017)

Recommended

Mutafukaz

ムタフカズ

DIRECTED BY: Shôjirô Nishimi, Guillaume “Run” Renard

FEATURING: Voices of Kenn Michael, Vince Staples, Michael Chiklis, Dino Andrade, Giancarlo Esposito, RZA (English-language dub)

PLOT: Angelino leads a dead-end existence with his flaming-skulled roommate Vinz in a city without hope until a truck accident leads to some freaky superpowers and crazy violence against an unstoppable invasion.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Because there’s no other home for a Jhonen Vasquez/Ralph Bakshi-style mash-up from the studio that brought us Tekkonkinkreet in alliance with some subversive Frenchies.

COMMENTS: Through some twist of fate, 2019 has been shaping up to be “The Year of the French Film” for me. Whether bearing witness to psycho-dream bombast, bracing myself against existenti-o-action chicanery, or enduring millennialist tedium, I have fallen quite firmly into a pulsating realm of Gallic sensibilities. Add to these titles something offbeat, exciting, and abbreviated: MFKZ. Before diving into the creamy center of this review, let me first assert the following: I am not, and have never been, on the pay-roll of Canal+, StudioCanal, or Société des Cinéromans. To paraphrase a famous North-of-France poet, I was neither born French nor achieved Frenchness, but somehow seem to have had Frenchness thrust upon me.

Having managed to hold down his pizza delivery job for almost three weeks, Angelino is forced to hand in his delivery scooter after getting smashed a bit by an oncoming truck. What distracted him? Why, the lovely Luna, who shows up in his life just enough to screw it up. Not that he needs any help with that. He’s constantly in fear of the omnipresent psycho gangs, he’s two months behind in his rent for his crummy apartment (though at least the cockroaches are friendly), his roommate and best friend Vinz (Vince Staples) is even less employed than he is (possibly owing to the fact that his head is a flame-crowned skull), and his other friend is a conspiracy-theory-spouting spaz of a cat (or something). Still, after a bad headache from his concussion and a nasty encounter with S.W.A.T.-y police goons, things start looking up as he discovers he’s suddenly got powers of strength, speed, and stamina quite beyond the norm. Good thing, too, because ‘Lino and his pals uncover a sinister plan from outer space.

For some reason I feel compelled to preemptively defend the “Recommended” label. I didn’t feel this way while watching it—it was an absolute hoot, combining lots of neato visual gimmicks (the high-speed chase by some “Men In Black” guys pursuing a hijacked ice cream van is a great bit, mixing gritty Bakshi with Grand Theft Auto), clever visual references (keep an eye out for “El Topo‘s” bodega), and recurring sci-fi/noir craziness that kept me elated throughout. The plot-line is just about as ridiculous as you can have without becoming incomprehensible, and the protagonists are wedged seamlessly into their urban milieu. And there’s a Shakespeare-spouting mega-thug, voiced by none other than RZA. But I digress.

I’ve read a number of reviews for MFKZ, and most of them are pretty down on the whole thing. This might simply be a case of a love-it/hate-it divide, with the majority falling in the latter category, but I’m almost certain I detected an undercurrent of sneering dismissiveness. MFKZ is full of life: never-say-die heroes, never-seem-to-die villains, and never-have-I-seen-such-detail backdrops. Nishimi and Renard have together created a beautifully realized genre classic: slacker-everyman saves the world and oh yeah, there are a bunch of tentacle monsters.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Any film encompassing Nazi-punching lucha libre wrestlers and top secret moonbases should by rights be huge fun, but even Renard finds himself conceding, ‘What the F*** is Going On?’ in a mid-film graphic. Enjoyment will depend on a tolerance for that randomness teenagers apparently find hilarious.”–Mike McCahill, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BEST F(R)IENDS, VOLS. 1 & 2 (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Justin MacGregor

FEATURING: Tommy Wiseau, , Kristen Stephenson-Pino

PLOT: After Harvey, a mortician, takes in Jon, a vagrant, the two hatch a scheme to sell golden teeth gleaned from years of cadaver processing; Jon learns the hard way that friendship is more important than money when he double-crosses Harvey.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The first half of Best F(r)iends just about carries its weight with Wiseau weirdness, but the plot twist(s) and the Wiseau-ex-machina in the second half steers the experience well enough into the realm of ridiculous to handily earn its weirdo chops.

COMMENTSOrson Welles and Gregg Toland, Marco Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer: to this auspicious list one must now add Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau. Auteurs often go it alone, but sometimes, it takes the discovery of a cinematic soulmate to join the pantheon of greats. Sestero and Wiseau are not (yet?) there. But with their continued collaborations (beginning with the cult classic The Room), these two dreamers have carved their own niche in the world of weird movies. Best F(r)iends, volumes one and two, exhibits something of a peculiar talent. Having already tackled the “What the…?”, they now prove they can actually maintain a (largely) coherent narrative.

Bloodied and down on his luck, Jon (Sestero) resumes his life begging on the streets of LA while pursued by a garish hearse. Its driver, Harvey (Wiseau), is a mortician with a troubled past and an odd pasttime: collecting the dental discard of the cadavers he magically transforms from damaged bodies into something you could be proud to show off. Harvey tentatively decides to take Jon under his wing, but is soon betrayed when Jon arranges to offload the boxes of gold culled from Harvey’s years of corpse work. Conspiring with his new girlfriend Tracy (Stephenson-Pino), who is not all she seems, Jon ends up murdering Harvey. When things start to go wrong for the lovers, it takes a knight in shining armor to come to the rescue.

Best F(r)iends‘ weirdness crept over me slowly. Put together from untold hours of footage, it really is two volumes in name only: this is Sestero’s epic. Though the first half merely putters along a pathway of somewhat predictable Wiseau Weirdness (I had to give up writing down Harvey’s truisms halfway through), it is the second half that blows down the barrier between quirky and outright weird. While I don’t want to ruin things for Wiseau-philes out there, I will give the hint that my plot wrap-up above is far less metaphorical than you might think.

I won’t get into Wiseau and Sestero’s long and bizarre shared history. Suffice to say, Wiseau is as alien in real life as he seems onscreen and Sestero is only nominally more talented an actor than his Room performance suggests. He is, however, not half-bad as a writer, and Best F(r)iends, improbably, hangs together as a narrative, one that alternately confounds and amuses. Even more unlikely, it somehow turns out to be an emotionally moving film that, while weaving its web of lies and double-crosses, is a compelling meditation on friendship and trust. It is no great monument to film, but Best F(r)iends is still impressively odd, and, more impressively, something you can actually follow.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…director Justin MacGregor certainly plays into the absurdity of the script’s strange premise and twisted plotting. Taken as a whole, the pacing of the experience is a little flabby and unwieldy—partly due, no doubt, to the film having now been split into two volumes—but MacGregor and Sestero seem to have taken cues from David Lynch of all people. There is a pervading sense of surreality to the proceedings, as Daniel Platzman’s score overbearingly plays over montages and scenes that convey more bewildering emotion than they do coherent plot details.”–Leigh Monson, Birth. Movies. Death.

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: LET THE CORPSES TAN (2017)

Laissez bronzer les cadavres

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Elina Löwensohn, Stéphane Ferrara, Michelangelo Marchese, Hervé Sogne, Dorylia Calmel, Marc Barbé

PLOT: After hitchhikers interrupt an otherwise precision gold heist, the thieves find themselves pinned down in a sex artist’s derelict haunt by an out-gunned but tenacious motorcycle cop.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: During the first half I felt inclined to write this one off as an overstylized Frenchy heist-Western. Then I realized two things: a rather strange undercurrent kept bobbing to the surface throughout, and “overstylized Frenchy heist-Westerns” are very few and far between.

COMMENTS: There must be an archetype to explain the character of Luce (Elina Löwensohn), a sex-goddess artiste fighting to her last smoky breath against law, society, and age. Her coastal hideaway reflects her mind: grandiose but crumbling, free but tortured, joyous but destructive. This setting is the anchor for machinations involving a gang of hard men, a scumbag lawyer, a drunken novelist, and two determined law enforcers. Let the Corpses Tan sets off a precision-rigged narrative bomb within the confines of an evil ant-farm.

At Luce’s dilapidated estate, a mountaintop retreat for various decadents, a gaggle of toughs has assembled to commit a daring robbery. The execution of Rhino’s (Stéphane Ferrara) plan goes like clockwork, with gunshots punctuating the passing of time. His young driver keeps the gas pedal to the floor, swerving the intricate route away from the armored car, now relieved of its 250 kilos of gold, as he nervously watches the clock. Up the hill, a burnt-out writer (Marc Barbé) attempts to sleep off his eternal hangover; on the road down the hill, the driver nearly crashes into a young woman. She is the nanny of the writer’s son, who has been brought with his mother to find the reclusive novelist. The few seconds the crooks could spare are taken up collecting the trio before zig-zagging back. The authorities are soon on the lookout for the missing persons and the missing gold. Before you can say “existentialist ennui,” two no-nonsense motorcycle cops ascend upon the villa and things start going very badly for everyone. Except Luce. She can’t get enough of this deadly violence and frantic backstabbing.

This movie feels wrenched from the 1970s, complete with vintage Ennio Morricone score, but reprocessed in a Cuisinart. Intertitles appear throughout, simultaneously grounding viewers with demarcations of the exact minute of the action while disorienting them by shunting between all the characters as they travel madly like ants around the ancient monastery in which the cops and robbers find themselves holed up. This motif is made explicit with a series of ant-covered aerial shots of the clutch of ruins. The resulting effect is a neo-pagan feel, itself established further with a series of flashbacks to the days when these grounds were used for some very personal performance art on the part of the endlessly drinking, smoking, and often-topless Luce. Flashbacks show the many explicit rites (lustful, shadowy acolytes and lactation-inducing bondage, among other things) that cemented Luce’s psyche to the very grounds the characters find themselves trapped upon.

Let the Corpses Tan is a gloriously explosive ratatouille-Western that immediately captures the viewer’s attention with hectic editing and smirking heartlessness. Assembling all the best elements from arthouse and grindhouse, Cattet and Forzani blast a Frenchy shot across cinema’s bow as they stand by, taking a drag on a cigarette. Watching it is akin to watching your philosophy seminar turn into a bullet-riddled hostage crisis.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a profoundly weird film but hypnotic nonetheless. – Mark Medley, Toronto Globe and Mail (festival screening)