Tag Archives: 2018

CAPSULE: LORDS OF CHAOS (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jonas Åkerlund

FEATURING: Rory Culkin, Emory Cohen, Jack Kilmer, Sky Ferreira, Jon Øigarden, Valter Skarsgård

PLOT: The founder of True Norwegian Black Metal, Euronymous, narrates his rise and fall from beyond the grave in a tale of music, church burning, metal, and marketing.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Lords of Chaos is a well-crafted biopic/docudrama about some very weird people. Graphic suicide and murder notwithstanding, this is an eminently mainstream, straightforward piece of high-quality cinema. Fans of True Norwegian Black Metal will want to upgrade this from a “recommended” to a “” rating.

COMMENTS: Norway: the land of Ski Queen cheese, smiling people in bright sweaters, and True Norwegian Black Metal. For the last of those three things, you can thank “Euronymous” (née Øystein Aarseth), founder of the band Mayhem and, if Lords of Chaos is to be believed, something of a marketing genius. Jonas Åkerlund, no stranger to the metal scene of the late ’80s, brings the dramatic tale of Euronymous’ journey from upper-middle-class rocker bad-boy to tragic murder victim to an English-speaking audience in this docudrama. With a sure touch and an unlikely sense of humor, Åkerlund spins a formidable yarn about some troubled lads spiraling out of control.

From his omnipotent afterlife perch, Øystein (Rory Culkin) narrates his early roots—appropriately subterranean in his parents’ basement. Graduating quickly from the status of inept musicians riding around in their parents Volvos, the metal group Mayhem enjoys a series of lucky breaks accompanied by implied Faustian bargains. They find a frontman, Death (an eerie Jack Kilmer), who rockets them to sub-fame before blasting his brains out. Death’s replacement is even darker: an impressionable, awkward young man named Christian (Emory Cohen), who changes his name to Varg after he buys into the whole death-cult-Satanist-nihilist shtick that Øystein has fabricated. Varg starts burning down churches, and the other band members’ moral fabric disintegrates as a horrible contest of one-upmanship rips them apart. As his vision of commercial glory begins to unravel, Øystein is forced to come to terms with the beast he’s created.

While many films directed by Music Video People obviously show their signature markings, Jonas Åkerlund stays his hand stylistically. His story is about the people behind the image, not a love letter to the presumed madness and evil of True Norwegian Black Metal. On the occasions that he does indulge in his fast-dreamy editing, the effect is that much more striking: Øystein’s recurring daydreams/nightmares of traveling through the woods, looking for his first friend and leading man are unsettling and touching. The music, most of it performed by the (non-Norwegian, non-metal) band Sigur Rós, alternately haunts and pummels. And the acting transforms these aspiring metal caricatures into realistic portraits of young outcasts.

Which brings me to Rory Culkin. Yes, he is from the same brood as the famous (to some of us older types) Macaulay Culkin, but in Lords of Chaos he seems to be channeling a young (carried in no small part by his eyes and his near-constant, “What the Hell is wrong with you people?” tone of voice). Culkin carries this picture. His joyful cynicism is underscored as his post-death montage wraps up, “No. Fuck. Stop this sentimental shit.” Though he may call himself “Euronymous”, Øystein remains Øystein: a cheeky, ambitious nerd with a flair for publicity. Lords of Chaos rubs elbows with the countless musical biopics that have streamed forth from the movie industry since time immemorial. It’s one of the few, though, to capture melodrama, mundanity, and hilarity so capably and with such strong disregard for nostalgia.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Despite Åkerlund’s refusal to lionize these immature kids, ‘Lords of Chaos’ is tremendous fun. Caveat: one must be able to handle severed pig heads, cat torture, and casual Nazism.” –Amy Nicholson, Variety

CAPSULE: BRAID (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Mitzi Peirone

FEATURING: Imogen Waterhouse, Sarah Hay, Madeline Brewer, Scott Cohen

PLOT: Two girls scheme to steal from their rich, but psychotic, old friend, but doing so requires them to go along with her fantasies: “the Game.”

Still from Braid (2018)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A hallucinatory thriller with modest ambitions to blow your mind, Braid finds itself in the weird pile, but not at the top of the heap. It’s a perfectly reasonable “B” selection to watch while waiting for something weirder to come down the pike.

COMMENTS: In the official opening scene of Braid, two collegiate drug dealers are inventorying their stash in their Manhattan loft, oblivious to the distant sound of police sirens. When the banging comes on their door, the film suddenly switches to black and white, security cam-style, as they make an improbable escape out the window and down the fire escape. What was decadent and glamorous in color suddenly turns dingy and desperate. At a later point, one of the girls pops what she thinks is Vicodin, but turns out to be a hallucinogen that turns the lawn purple (pro-tip: popping random pills is not recommended when you’re in the middle of pulling a caper). These visual dislocations, which are a constant in Braid, serve as a reminder of how fickle perception can be. They’re a reflection of the main plot device: a young lady trapped in a delusion that’s she’s still a little girl playing doctor with her friends. Later, we view a scene filmed upside down, for no apparent reason; debuting filmmaker Mitzi Peirone is often just using the delusion excuse to throw a lot of stuff on the screen that she thinks will look cool, like water flowing backwards into the faucet. (Actually, that’s not a bad strategy for a movie with a theme of disorientation.)

Petula and Tilda, the two college dropout robbers, are sufficiently rude and narcissistic that we’re amped to see them get their  comeuppance at the whims of their fruitcake ex-friend. Of course, Daphne, living in a dilapidated mansion and still playing house even though she now actually owns a house, herself is too detached from reality to root for. There is a detective sniffing around, but he seems fated to fall victim to the last of the game’s three rules: “no outsiders allowed.” Still, even though things threaten to get a little torture porn-y at times when Daphne goes to any lengths to keep her friends playing the Game, the film does make a dash for meaningful empathy at the very end.

There is a twist about a third of the way through that I didn’t see coming. It’s no stunner, but it is clever enough for an evening’s entertainment. A number of seemingly odd moments—such as the cliche old doomsayer cackling at the pair as they prepare to re-engage with their long lost gal pal—start to make (some) sense in retrospect. On the other hand, it also makes you conscious of how some of the early scenes were contrived specifically to fool the audience, rather than for organic story reasons. And some stuff never really adds up at all, such as a foot fetish scene. Still, the reveal is done well, and allows Peirone to pull out a lot of stops for a schizo-surrealist montage the supplies a high point before things start to peter out in a dreamy, melancholy epilogue (the film had been tautly paced up to that point).

The film’s insights into the subjectivity of human perception never really threaten to get beyond the superficial, but they do make a decent substrate for a weird-ass thriller. Peirone shows skill in putting the whole together, and with the help of cinematographer Todd Banhazl has a great (if undisciplined) visual flair. Keep your expectations at the level of a smart B-thriller and you may be pleasantly surprised by how well Braid threads these three women together.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bolstered by its kinetic cinematography and stellar production design, Mitzi Peirone’s surreal nightmare Braid is a crazy fever dream of deranged games and broken realities.”–Adam Patterson, Film Pulse (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: UMBILICAL WORLD (2018)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of David Firth, Paul MacKenzie, Christian Webb

PLOT: A remixed collection of David Firth’s absurdist flash animation cartoons, like “Salad Fingers” and “Health Reminder,” assembled into a stream-of-consciousness feature with some new material.

Still from Umbilical World (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The nature of the project—an anthologized (though “remixed”) collection of previously published material as opposed to something originally conceived as a unified piece—makes Umbilical World somewhat suspect as an official List entry. There is enough bizareness here to merit the “” tag, however, and that will be more than enough endorsement for many folks.

COMMENTS: Umbilical World begins with “Salad Fingers,” the sweet green goblin with vegetable digits (and David Firth’s most popular creation) struck by lightning and dissolving into a puddle, out of which a glistening umbilical organ rises and glides into low Earth orbit, where it grows on to have relations with celestial objects.

It’s totally and delightfully surreal, of course, but this opening is also a way of implying connectivity between these shorts, although in reality there is no serious connective tissue between the segments. The absurdist miniatures here range from the silly tale of Salad Fingers adopting some sort of oil-soaked battered tin war surplus cylinder, to a skit with skinless gangsters using twisted Prohibition-era slang to order drinks, to straight-up satires of ads and public-service announcements, to a truly nightmarish bit involving a razor-taloned doctor puppet who wounds a horse and feasts on its blood. (Those who have only been exposed to Firth’s lighter, satirical side may be shocked by how terrifyingly dark he can go.) There is, at least, a unity of style and attitude, themes of insanity and death and despair and tubes suck through your skull, and a consistent vein of coal-black humor used to cope with these existential terrors. Extra-weird bits include a character vomiting scrabble tiles when questioned by a head sticking out of a tree stump—not to mention a baby-faced umbilicus entering a photograph of a vagina, emerging from a photograph of an anus, and vomiting eyeballs. There’s a new insane concept once every thirty seconds on average. And there are a surprising number of decapitations—usually not fatal—running throughout the work.

The transitions between the sequences are new material, with ideas like Salad Fingers taking place on a microscopic world on a piece of moldy bread. Characters also watch new cartoons on televisions embedded in the back of other characters heads. Stylistically, much of the animation remains true to Firth’s original flash versions, updated to HD; there are also segments dabbling in an ultra-grotesque form of cutout animation, with cross-eyed photorealistic heads bobbling unsteadily on animated bodies. One extended, trippy bit of digital manipulation, where 21st century  amoebas morph in pseudo-3D over the image before exploding into a fractal supernova and then turning into a stop-motion / homage with mannequin heads and a spinning plate of fruit and sundered body parts, ventures into brave new territory. The music—by Flying Lotus, the late Marcus Fjellström, and others—is eerie and well-matched to the mood. And while the individual pieces featured here may work better as shorts—there can be too much of a good thing, at least in one sitting—the experience is like leaving Firth’s YouTube channel on autoplay while waiting for the drugs to kick in, then checking in just when you’re peaking to find something on that plays like a collaboration between , , and a serial killer.

On a personal level, I was only familiar with the three Firth shorts previously published on these pages, plus a few more we screened and passed over for another day. I suspect someone like me may be in the best position to appreciate this collection. If you have too much familiarity with Firth’s work, you might be disappointed in how little new material is here, or be upset if your personal favorite was left out. If you have too little familiarity with Firth’s work, you might miss out on a bit of context or some of the umbilical connections, or simply be stunned by the mix of -style jokes with nightmares that would make bolt up in bed screaming. In any case, there is an obvious pitch to this work: Firth has worked hard publishing on YouTube to build a fan base, but paltry streaming advertising revenues don’t pay the bills for 99% of content providers. Like a Kickstarter reward, Umbilical World offers fans a chance to show him a little financial support, and to receive something new and exclusive in exchange. Umbilical World also immortalizes Firth’s work in a less ephemeral fashion. It’s available streaming (click here for options), or on DVD with a bonus “making of” documentary and director’s commentary.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In terms of the vibe, think Bill Plympton crossed with Eraserhead.”–Joe Bendel, J.B. Spins

CAPSULE: MOUNTAIN REST (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Alex O Eaton

FEATURING: Natalia Dyer, , , Shawn Hatosy

PLOT: Frankie takes her teenage daughter Clara to meet her ailing grandmother, a retired Hollywood actress, for the first time at her cabin in the mountains, where old resentments resurface.

Still from Mountain Rest (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite being pitched as a “surreal drama,” the only weird elements here are a single dream sequence and an incongruously ominous tone.

COMMENTS: A chamber drama shot almost entirely in the director’s family’s cabin, Mountain Rest‘s greatest strength lies in its trio of female leads, followed closely by the postcard-perfect shots of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Natalia Dyer (the main commercial draw, thanks to “Stranger Things”) plays granddaughter Clara. Dyer, incredibly, is already 21 years old; I would have pegged her character at 15 at the oldest. She takes advantage of her waifish look to portray a teen more convincingly than an actual teenager would; when her character nervously samples a glass of wine or tries for some ambiguous flirtation, the actress has the underlying awareness of someone who understands both the insecurity of late adolescence and the lurking perils of adulthood. TV vet Frances Conroy (“Six Feet Under,” “American Horror Story”) gets the chance to give her take on a flamboyant Norma Desmond type past-her-prime starlet, and clearly relishes the opportunity. As the mother caught between these two women, Kate Lyn Sheil—who for a decade now has seemed like the hot young indie actress just about to break into the mainstream—has an almost thankless role, mainly reacting to the younger woman with concern and the older with simmering resentment, yet holds her own. It’s no surprise that the only male actor is upstaged by these three. His character is a bit ambiguous (is he a scheming gigolo, or just a faithful caretaker?), but his Carolina accent is a softspoken fail.

The scenario puts these four in a cabin for a couple of days; sparks threaten to fly, but nothing really ignites. A secret is revealed, but it has dull teeth. And, most frustratingly, the Mountain Rest keeps threatening to venture into scary psychological thriller territory, then pulls back. The film suggests a sense of danger around Clara that never materializes. She meets the local teens and drinks beer/smokes pot, and soon thereafter is mysteriously hypnotized by a rushing mountain stream. Later, in the film’s only weird sequence, she will visit that location again, in a dream. One-shots show her apprehensive knitted brow and a string quartet broods ominously as she eavesdrops on conversations between her mother and the caretaker, or her grandmother and her dead husband. A minimal level of taboo sexual tension develops between her and Bascolm. Wrapped in a towel, she discovers a knothole in the bathroom door. She’s so tightly wound that she bites off the rim of a wine glass. But nothing ever develops from these hints; the noose stays slack.

Alex O Eaton (no “.” after the middle initial) assembles and directs a fantastic cast. The three actresses create a realistic, distrustful-yet-fond generational dynamic among each other, one that often plays out as more gripping than the dialogue directs. The cinematography is pro, the music well-chosen.  And Eaton has a gift for creating miniature moments of subtle unease. But the story here stays too restrained; every time it threatens to move in a dangerous direction, it pulls back and goes for the obvious angle. The young director shows talent to craft individual scenes and shots that hint at deeper meaning and menace; I’d like to see what she could do if she lets herself go for broke.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a tense, imagistic drama with an almost somnambulant rhythm…”–Steve Haruch, Nashville Scene (festival screening)