Tag Archives: 2017

CAPSULE: TOP KNOT DETECTIVE (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Aaron McCann, Dominic Pearce

FEATURING: Toshi Okuzaki, Mayu Iwasaki, Masa Yamaguchi, Des Mangan

PLOT: Mockumentary describing a bizarre Japanese cult TV show about a ronin detective who fights samurai and giant robots and eventually travels through time, and the mystery behind its sudden cancellation.

Still from Top Knot Detective (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s cute, but minor; an affectionate and entertaining 90 minutes for exploitation movie fans. “Reboot” the fake TV series and we’ll talk about weirdest of all time.

COMMENTS: In our first introduction to “Top Knot Detective,” we see the black-robed title character menaced by a ninja; our hero quickly plays a reed flute, which summons a shark. It bursts through the ground and flies through the sky to completely swallow the bad guy (and squirt liters of blood from its mouth). That may be the craziest moment in the fake series: or it might be when the detective literally catches lightning while playing electric guitar in a thunderstorm. Or the product placement for Suttafu beer. Or the late-series introduction of the detective’s armored, time-traveling, baseball-bat-wielding sidekick. Or the cheaply-designed penis monster (with the actors’ arms poking out of the sides of the pink rubber suit). You can pick your own WTFiest moment, but all of this “archival” material is presented on low-definition, mock-multi-generation-VHS stock, complete with the occasional vertical hold artifact.

Seeing outrageous clips delivered without much regard for the show’s chronology, we don’t get a real sense of how the plot arc of the series works, but that’s by design. The conceit is that “Top Knot”‘s creators pretty much made up the show as they went along—and that anything could happen from episode to episode. About all we learn about the overall plot is that “Deductive Reasoning Ronin” is searching for the man who killed his master, a poorly-motivated villain who sends ninjas, giant robots, and (apparently) penis monsters after the detective. Presumably, the detective solves mysteries in between sword fights, marking his triumphs with a heavily-accented and often inappropriate cry of “deductive reasoning”!

The movie’s real plot is the fictional backstory of the making of the TV show, told through interviews with the alleged cast, all of whom exclusively speak Japanese. The filmmakers introduce Takashi Takamoto, the dissolute narcissist and self-appointed genius behind the series, and Suttafu, the conglomerate trying to make a buck of the show’s sensationalism, along with a bitter rival and a J-pop love interest. In stark contrast to the campy re-enactments, this archival material is produced with a totally straight face, so that anyone who came in in the middle would be forgiven for thinking that “Top Knot”  was a real television show. The story of love affairs, Takamoto’s unhinged appearances on a talk show featuring an animated kitty, and tabloid scandals of a sort peculiar to Japan all ends in a murder. Like “Top Knot”‘s interrupted plotline, this crime isn’t fully resolved… although I have my theories. But while you ponder the mystery, stay tuned for another mind-boggling (fake) trailer post-credits.

If there’s one complaint to be lodged against Top Knot Detective, it’s that it plays up the whole damn-Japanese-TV-is-incomprehensibly-weird stereotype, encouraging cultural mockery rather than cultural engagement. But the project is presented with such genuine love and affection for the genre that this seems like a minor criticism indeed.

The grindhouse revival trend sparked ten years ago by and played itself out in the U.S. fairly quickly, but is still going strong in the underground Down Under. They definitely put their own odd, Aussie spin on the phenomenon. Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!, a documentary celebrating the island’s homegrown exploitation industry, arrived in 2008. (who appears here as a talking head) made the Grindhouse-style fake “Italian Spiderman” trailer in 2007, and went on to co-write the insane Hitler-hunting TV series “Danger 5” (one season was done in the style of 1960s men’s magazines, the other as an 80s action movie), which graced TV screens in 2011 and 2015. Narrator Des Mangan is a real Australian television cult film presenter (and screenwriter of the campy 1993 throwback Hercules Returns, which scooped the revivalist genre by a couple decades). In other words, Australians know and love their outré exploitation, and appreciate it precisely for the qualities that make it weird. As one talking head sums up the appeal of “Top Knot”: “….the whole thing doesn’t make any sense, but that’s what’s beautiful about it. When you watch a lot of media, watch a lot of movies and TV, you get bored, you get jaded, you’ve seen the same stuff over and over again, and you’re praying for some kind of weirdness, some kind of real lunacy to just grab you and shake you up and show you something new.” A better manifesto for the trash-oddity subgenre would be hard to script. These are our kind of people, folks.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“McCann and Pearce make their feature directing debut with a wonderfully bizarre and almost mind-bogglingly complex meta-treatment on not only the delightful weirdness of ’70s Japanese cinema, but also the culture of rabid fandom that eats this stuff up.”–J. Hurtado, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: HAGAZUSSA (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lukas Feigelfeld

FEATURING: Aleksandra Cwen, Claudia Martini, Tanja Petrovsky, Celina Peter, Haymon Maria Buttinger

PLOT: An orphaned goatherd exacts revenge on her village before succumbing to her own dark fate.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The sensation left by this brooding contemplation on mystic solitude and the effects of cruelty renders it a far cry from typical supernatural horror. It is a stunning example of the genre of Eldritch Dread. For the briefest of moments I was on the fence about this movie’s viability as an Apocrypha candidate, but after some thought I can attest it is well within the scope of such an honor—though I’m relieved this came to our attention after the Canon had closed and the possibility of hundreds more films opened up.

COMMENTS: If the prospect of watching long, meditative shots and hearing only some few dozen lines of dialogue over the course of one-hundred minutes discourages you, perhaps you should stop reading right now. Lukas Feigelfeld’s debut Hagazussa begins on a lonely alp, runs its course on a lonely alp, and finishes abruptly on a lonely alp. Like the slow muffling of snowfall, the patient viewer will find the film’s subtle accumulations result in something profoundly rewarding.

From our opening glimpse, we can imagine the entire childhood of young Albrun (Celina Peter), living alone with her mother in a high-mountain cabin tending to a herd of goats. The few locals all fear Albrun’s mother (Claudia Martini), a fear that even Albrun develops when her mother is stricken physically, then mentally, by a grotesque disease. Grown up and now completely alone, the adult Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen) keeps no company other than her own infant daughter, acquired by means unknown. She is surprised when a local peasant defends her against the taunts of some idle lads, and seems on the cusp of reaching out to the rest of humanity, when her naivety is betrayed.

Very rarely do I approve of films relying on “atmosphere” to carry them, but Hagazussa has the advantage of drawing its quiet intensity from a handful of sources. The unearthly quavering drone of MMMD (a cryptic duet whose music has been described as “Chamber Doom”) grabs your ear right from the start. The score is appropriately minimalistic, limited in tone as well as deployment, which heightens the effect of its eerie nature wonderfully. The harsh beauty of the mountain setting complements its sparseness. Scenes are typically covered in snow, or rain, or lake water, with long shots cutting between the extreme closeups of the characters.

Which brings me to Aleksandra Cwen. With such little dialogue and exposition, we rely on her to convey the sense, if not the exact nature, of what is going on, and her face and eyes do a marvelous job. This triangle of haunting sound, haunting backdrop, and such a haunting face carries the viewer through a fragile, minimalist narrative amazingly well.

Be advised, anyone who plans on streaming this through Amazon: there is no subtitle option, only closed captioning. In other words, you can either have no subtitles, or all the subtitles, with every musical, sound, and even non-sound1)Never before have I seen a notice spring up (and spring up so often) in closed captioning stating, “No Audio”; but then, Hagazussa has a lot more silence in it than most movies. cue brought to your attention alongside the dialogue. Despite having watched it with continual captions, Hagazussa still managed to enchant me with its measured disquietude.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If last year’s standout psychedelic genre piece ‘Mandy’ was lysergic cinema par excellence, this equally trippy (if otherwise very different) quasi-horror revenge tale offers a nightmare soaked in psilocybin, its every element queasily organic.”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (festival screening)

References   [ + ]

1. Never before have I seen a notice spring up (and spring up so often) in closed captioning stating, “No Audio”; but then, Hagazussa has a lot more silence in it than most movies.

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 2033 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 to 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 is 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)