Tag Archives: 2017

CAPSULE: CANIBA (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel

FEATURING: Issei Sagawa, Jun Sagawa

PLOT: Confessed cannibal Issei Sagawa monologues to the camera, his face often out of focus, and talks to his caretaker brother, who is revealed to be almost as deranged.

Still from Caniba (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Caniba would make a list of the most disturbing movies ever made—easily. It’s subject is a weirdo par excellence—in fact, he may be the world’s strangest living monster—and the film takes an experimental, offbeat approach to depicting him. Yet everything shown here is tragically real, and the effect goes beyond “weird” into “despairing.”

COMMENTS: Issei Sagawa, an intelligent but shy Japanese man studying French in Paris, killed and ate a female classmate in 1981. He spent five years in a mental institution in France and then was deported to Japan where, due to quirks of the judicial system, he was freed. Since then he has lived a marginalized existence, making a meager living off his infamy. He is now weakened by a stroke and holed up in a dingy apartment, cared for by his brother.

Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, Harvard-based anthropologist filmmakers, chose to follow up their arthouse hit Leviathan (an uncontroversial documentary about commercial fishermen in the North Atlantic) with this perverted provocation about Sagawa. Most of the movie is out-of-focus shots of the ailing cannibal, closeups of his twisted, trembling hands or his blank face as he delivers halting, unhinged monologues (“I know I’m crazy,” he confesses). When he talks at all, he speaks as if he’s in a trance, gathering the strength to push out each phrase, about five or six words per minute, with long pauses in between. We also meet his caretaker brother Jun, who eventually reveals some shocking fetishes of his own—leading one to wonder whether there is a genetic curse on the Sagawa clan, or whether Jun was driven mad by knowledge of his brother’s crimes. Old black-and-white home movies of the two show what look like happy, normal children.  Back in the present, we have a very odd pixilated porn sequence starring Sagawa, inserted without any context, followed by a tour through the manga he drew celebrating his crime. Jun is both fascinated and disturbed by the graphic drawings of the girl’s corpse and his brother’s erection when faced with it. “I can’t stomach this anymore,” he says, but continues turning the pages. Issei, distant as always, seems embarrassed, if anything, reluctant to answer the questions his brother poses. For the final scene, they bring in a prostitute (or groupie?) dressed as a sexy nurse to read the cannibal a bedtime story about zombies, then take the invalid demon out for a wheelchair stroll around the neighborhood. The end.

I am glad someone documented these two twisted specimens of humanity with minimal editorializing, but the result is no fun whatsoever, and offers no insight to their pathologies, making it a very difficult watch on multiple levels. It’s of interest to sick thrill seekers and serious students of abnormal psychology. You should know this movie exists. God help you if you watch it. There is no guarantee it will get a commercial release. The film seems destined to remain forever underground, where it probably belongs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A weirdo documentary…  strange and unpleasant…”–Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews

CAPSULE: THE RELATIONTRIP (2017)

DIRECTED BY: C.A. Gabriel, Renée Felice Smith

FEATURING: Matt Bush, Renée Felice Smith, voice of Eric Christian Olsen

PLOT: A couple of neurotic, directionless twentysomethings take a weekend trip that turns into a fantastical, compressed version of a relationship.

Still from The Relationtrip (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a reasonably hip twist on the romantic comedy formula with a few clever (and borderline surreal) ideas. The Relationtrip pleasantly tweaks the romantic comedy formula, but takes care not to twist it so hard that it can’t snap back into shape in time for the expected resolution.

COMMENTS: Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Depressed twentysomething loser plays video games all day. Is talked into going to a party full of strangers where he does something embarrassing. Cute girl there approaches him. They bond. Go out for tacos. Witty repartee. They complain about all their friends getting all married and boring. They dare each other to take a trip together—but promise they’ll stay just friends. They fall in love. A secret emerges that threatens their budding romance. They break up. They each have an epiphany about how fear and insecurity keeps them from finding happiness. A speech demonstrating personal growth. They get back together.

OK, maybe you have. But have you heard these? The couple peel each others’ faces off at breakfast. They lie in a hammock that turns into a cocoon. Turns out the girl is a never-nude. There’s a dead angel stripper stag film. A visit from a giant mommy. A couples counselor in a pillow fort. A fight with an abusive beer-drinking puppet.

The Relationtrip takes the pop-psychology clichés of screen (and real) relationships and serves them up as big, absurd, literal metaphors. It’s an idea that’s clever enough to be amusing without being subversive. It’s a parody, not a satire, and the movie still believes in love and in all its expected obstacles. The young actors are good-looking and likable, although their constant armor of hipster irony can grow wearisome. The concept is high enough that I can’t help but wonder whether this might have been a box office hit with better-known leads, a quirkier best friend confidant, a killer one-liner or two, and a script that dialed back the surrealism just a tad. And a less clunky title, of course.

Although the word “weird” gets bandied around a lot in discussions of this one—they even stuck it in the official synopsis—you’re not going to mistake Relationtrip for does When Harry Met Sally or anything. On the other hand, if you’re reading this site, you’re probably not a particular fan of formulaic romantic comedies; this is one that you’re likely to find tolerable, and maybe even involving.

The co-writers/co-directors are a real-life couple. You might recognize Renée Felice Smith from “NCIS: Los Angeles.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As the road trip rolls on, ‘The Relationtrip’ gets weird. Not cute-silly weird, but clever-smart weird, all bolstered by Smith and Bush’s fun and easy chemistry.”–Kate Erbland, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: VAMPIRE CLAY (2017)

Chi o sû nendo

DIRECTED BY: Sôichi Umezawa

FEATURING: , Shinoda Ryo, Tsuda Kanji

PLOT: Students in a rural Japanese clay workshop accidentally awaken a possessed being crafted by a failed sculptor who died under mysterious circumstances.

Still from Vampire Clay (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Sôichi Umezawa gets a tip of the 366 Weird Hat for his creative directorial debut, but its Cronenberg-in-clay trappings are firmly in the realm of a (somewhat) standard scary movie.

COMMENTS: “Understated” and “body-horror” rarely sit side-by-side as descriptors, but Sôichi Umezawa pulls off this fairly impressive parlor trick with aplomb in his directorial debut. Primarily known for his make-up effects (and best known to us for his work on The ABCs of Death 2), Umezawa spins us a yarn set in an unlikely place (a rural clay-sculpting academy) about an unlikely antagonist (a creepy-cute blood golem thing). The action, such as it is, fits into that Horror Genre Standard Time of under ninety minutes. The result? A fairly memorable outing that won’t burn your entire evening.

Sensei Yuri Aina (Kurosawa Asuka) runs a very small school for aspiring sculptors somewhere in not-Tokyo, Japan. When she is forced to set up shop in an abandoned painter’s studio after finding her own workshop damaged by an earthquake, she unearths a bag of dried powder while digging in the studio’s garden. Thinking nothing of it, she places it in her school. Young up-and-comer Kaori (Shinoda Ryo), fresh from a stint at art school in totally-Tokyo, Japan, is one of Aina’s pupils. Kaori’s bucket of clay is used by another student, which prompts Kaori to re-hydrate the powdery remnants that Aina had put aside. Life returns to the cursed clay at the first spritz of water, and soon the students fall prey to a malevolent, inhuman force.

All told, there are just eight characters in this melodrama about rejection, competition, and the evils of industrial waste. The back-story of the evil clay beast is sufficiently over-the-top without slipping into giggle territory; I actually found myself rather moved by the tale of the failed sculptor who literally put his lifeblood into “Kakame”, the smiling vampire golem. The attacks on the students (who comprise five of the film’s eight characters) are all clever—think Cronenberg in high school art class. I imagine creativity and patience were Umezawa’s watchwords, as the budget for this movie must have been on the very low side. In one particularly unsettling bit, Kaori’s chief rival gets enveloped by the clay monster and tries to communicate to the other students the next day from within a sculpture. (I was reminded of the creepy short, Alma.) Other bits of violence—both gruesome and creative—are found throughout. The end veers heavily into the “Apocalypse-as-Revenge” genre, in perhaps a personal attack by the director on those who may have doubted his talents in the past.

Now that Sôichi Umezawa has proven he can maintain a feature-length narrative as well as scare his audience, I’m hopeful he’ll move on to some more challenging material. Vampire Clay takes you on a quick journey into one of the few remaining unexplored corners of the Gotta-Have-Blood monster genre while laying the ground-work for what will hopefully be a fuller career in weirdo-creepy motion pictures.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The notion of Vampire Clay is a fun thought experiment, and Umezawa seems to intend it that way, too, embracing both the utter ridiculousness of sentient hunks of plasticine and its endless creative applications…  the film has a better chance taking root in the imagination than in theaters, because the idea of vampire clay is so much more potent than actually watching it in action. Nothing this absurd should be this boring.”–Scott Tobias, Variety

CAPSULE: MOM AND DAD (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Selma Blair, Anne Winters, Zackary Arthur

PLOT: Parents all across the world suddenly snap and start trying to kill their kids, leading to an all-out generational battle royale. Still from Mom and Dad (2107)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Mom and Dad is actually a challenging movie to comprehend on first grasp. There is nothing in the execution of this film that says “weird,” but the premise alone is audaciously novel, and the tone is consistently off-rhythm. Maybe a list of “the 1000 strangest movies” would be a better fit for this movie.

COMMENTS: Mom and Dad‘s tagline reads, “They brought you into this world. They can take you out.” That line actually comes from an old Bill Cosby joke during his stand-up days, and is reused in the pilot episode for The Cosby Show. Cringing yet? Get used to it! Add to that the facts that the writer-director of this movie also did Crank, and that Nicholas Cage, in my book, is still serving time for what he did to The Wicker Man, and you can well appreciate how I entered this movie: with my expectations roughly south of cold coffee. The artsy opening credits sequence gave me a sprinkle of optimism; the contrast of soul-rock with James Bond-ish split frame montages set me up for a happy sick humor party. What would have done with this idea?

Back to reality. The movie focuses on suburban beehive hell and the nuclear family of Brent (Nicolas Cage) and Kendall (Selma Blair) and their two kids Carly (Anne Winters) and Josh (Zackary Arthur). Scene 1: bratty little brother interrupts big sister’s phone call to her boyfriend, so she chases him downstairs yelling she’s going to kill him and chucking a framed family portrait after him. Foreshadowing. While the family breakfasts, reports of parental filicide (that means killing your own kids) play on the news. The family argues over Carly’s date conflicting with grandparents expected for dinner, reading like a campy parody of American sitcoms. Their servant, Sun-Yi (Sharon Gee), seems used to it. Throughout their day, the family, even the adults talking to each other, bicker in casual passive-aggressive ways, not a joyful scene to be had. In school, Carly’s teacher is a mean jerk.

The whole world of Mom and Dad is a bleak landscape of sneering nastiness regardless of who’s talking to whom, which builds up to all the parents showing up early to pick up their kids from school—and it’s not to take them out for ice cream! It turns into a spontaneous riot, with the too-few cops failing to keep order as parents leap fences and gates and start stone cold assassinating their kids using any means at hand. Kids run, parents chase, bedlam, uh, badlams. Talking heads on the news spread the same story, and of course no one knows why this is happening. A lengthy delivery room sequence with Kendall’s sister picking today of all days to give birth terminates in a post-natal abortion as mom strangles the newborn. Elsewhere in the hospital, new parents press their faces against the glass of the maternity ward, locked out.

All this blurs by, less like a movie and more like an anthology of connected scenes. It’s exactly like a million zombie apocalypse survival scenarios, only the zombies are all repoductively fertile adults. Notably, no parent is homicidal towards anyone else but their own offspring, unless somebody gets between them. The kids of our central nuclear family return home to find their housekeeper Sun-Yi mopping up the blood from her own filicide. The kids have to fend for themselves, and marshal defenses such as taking their parents’ gun; which gives us a satirical recitation of home firearm statistics after a parent gets shot.

Speaking as one who favors the darkest side of humor… I’m a little let down, because there’s not much dark humor here, except in the general concept. Cage does his Cagiest, and his trademark freakouts carry every scene he’s in—singing the “Hokey Pokey” while demolishing his pool table with a sledgehammer after a minor marital dispute, that sort of thing—but he’s not even in the bulk of the movie. The thing about Nicholas Cage is, his act is starting to get old. After your 100th Daffy Duck cartoon, seeing him act like a loon isn’t a surprise anymore. Outside the Cage, the rest of the movie seems like a particularly bleak number. I would hope repeat viewings could help the flavor to come through, like a Captain Beefheart album, but that’s doubtful, giving the limp ending.

Mom and Dad does have many strong points in its favor. It is intelligently handled, has an original and daring premise, and explores that concept in depth. There’s just enough Nicholas Cage to flavor it without overpowering it. The rest of the cast is competent; Selma Blair gets several good scenes. But… it seems to not know what it wants to be. It nibbles on some themes, like punk nihilism, anti-consumerism, and social parody of the generation gap, without committing to any of them. It could have been a lot worse, so perhaps its biggest achievement is making this edgy premise work. It aspires to mild interest, achieves that capably, then quits while it’s ahead.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The phrase ‘I swear I could kill that kid’ is no longer an exaggerated statement of infuriation, as some mysterious phenomenon creates a gloriously weird amalgam of ParentsThe Purge, and Dawn of the Dead in Brian Taylor’s jet-black horror-comedy.”–Blake Crane, Film Pulse (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ZAMA (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lucrecia Martel

FEATURING: Daniel Giménez Cacho

PLOT: A Spanish magistrate at an Amazonian outpost in Argentina longs for a transfer so he can return to his family.

Still from Zama (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s subtly strange, but we prefer much more strangeness and less subtlety.

COMMENTS: Form follows theme in Zama, a movie about a man waiting for a transfer that never comes, in which the viewer waits for a reason to keep watching that never arrives. If one is looking for things to praise, the usual arthouse accoutrements easy enough to point out: the wild Amazonian locations, the widescreen cinematography that captures it, and Daniel Giménez Cacho’s performance as the weary, increasingly resigned magistrate. After that, I fear, you’re pretty much on your own.

Zama has many plot oddments but next to no plot. It may too effectively capture the feeling of being trapped in a stifling, dull job while wishing you were somewhere else. It’s a series of mostly middling anecdotes with little connection, vague developments that often mystify without involving. A young boy declares our hero Zama is “a god who was born old and can’t die.” Zama secretly courts a fellow official’s wife. Anachronistic Hawaiian exotica plays (admittedly, this sounds pretty cool). A black messenger repeatedly shows up with instructions for Zama; he doesn’t wear pants. Zama gets into a fight with a Spanish emissary for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. The governor promises to write a letter requesting a transfer for the magistrate, but never gets around to it. A llama wanders onto the set and the actors ignore it and continue the scene. (This shot impressed many critics, maybe because they were eager to praise the film but couldn’t find much else going on to talk about.) We learn that Zama has a bastard son. The colonists play dice; a geode is offered to cover a bet, but Zama insists it’s worthless. Zama hears a minor character’s thoughts. Zama catches a fever and moves to a hovel. He betrays a friend, hoping to get a letter of recommendation. Things pick up a little at the very end when he grows a beard and joins an expedition to hunt down the outlaw Vicuña, whom he has spent the movie insisting is dead. Then Zama dies. I don’t know what to make of these events, but I’m not inspired to make the effort.

While other critics raved about Zama‘s anti-colonialist ethos and poetic aesthetic, I side with general audiences in thinking that this one is—to put it bluntly—boring. It would benefit from cutting thirty minutes off of its meandering front end. Perhaps the problem is that it’s too faithful an adaptation of its 1956 source novel—Zama‘s meditative pace seems like it would read better on the page than it plays onscreen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a patient, delicately strange film chronicling an increasingly impatient man and a destiny beyond his control.”–Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune (contemporaneous)