Tag Archives: 2018

CAPSULE: KNIFE + HEART (2018)

Un couteau dans le coeur

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Vanessa Paradis, , , Jonathan Genet

PLOT: A troubled director tries to figure out who’s killing off the actors in her gay porn troupe.

Still from knife + heart (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although there are a few odd touches, Knife + Heart essentially rehashes familiar old giallo territory, but with a new queer slant.

COMMENTS: Knife + Heart (the French title translates to the more euphonious A Knife in the Heart) is basically a modern, queer giallo that plays out in the unique setting of the 1970s French gay porn industry. Gruesomely, it features a killer who strikes with a knife sheathed in a dildo. The protagonist is Anne, an alcoholic lesbian still hopelessly in love with Lois, her film editor, long after the latter has rejected her for her wine-sodden unpredictability. When the cast and crew of her latest pornographic opus start turning up dead, Anne develops a new obsession. She makes a tasteless porno adaptation of the real life crimes, including an interrogation scene that echoes her actual interview with the police, but this time with typewriter boffing. (After considering a couple of titles, she settles on Homocidal.) An accidentally discovered clue leads her to a remote French village where a mysterious bird is said to live, and then indirectly to the actual killer.

Knife + Heart stays true to the giallo form, with fetishistic shots of phallic knives in black-gloved hands and an obvious tribute to Suspiria’s colorful rainstorm driving scene. Ultimately, the solution to the mystery isn’t particularly convincing,—which is also true to the genre. Although there are a few mildly surreal bits—including a surprise bird claw you won’t forget—the main novelty here is the transposition of the erotic locus from the hetero- to the homo-sexual world. The sex is graphic, but not actually hardcore (although it comes close enough to rate this as an 18+ production).

Although Knife + Heart is a stylish and more-than-competent homage, I wondered about the purpose of the whole experiment. It’s an entertaining throwback, but besides queer inclusiveness, it doesn’t add much to the genre. The film has a superficial artiness—check out that post-credits Roman orgy!—that primes you for something deeper than a mere thriller; yet, disappointingly, it never really dives beneath its pretty surface.

This is Yann Gonzalez’s second feature film after 2013’s even more explicitly erotic (and even more surreal) You and the Night [Les Rencontres d’après minuit]. Both films screened at Cannes to generally positive receptions. Americans can catch them on physical media or streaming services (both are on Kanopy). Both are also scored by Yann’s brother Anthony, a popular electronic musician with the band M83.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It feels like a giallo take on ‘Phantom of the Paradise,’ with heavy influences from ‘Peeping Tom’ and Todd Haynes’ 1991 feature debut, ‘Poison.’ This magical, erotic, disco-tinged horror-thriller is like cinematic candy.”–Katie Walsh, Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BIRDS WITHOUT FEATHERS (2018)

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DIRECTED BY: Wendy McColm

FEATURING: Wendy McColm, Alexander Stasko, Lenae Day, Cooper Oznowicz, William Gabriel Grier, Sara Estefanos

PLOT: The lives of six odd characters intersect in increasingly surreal ways.

Still from Birds Without Feathers (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Wendy McColm’s debut feature is a defiantly odd duck; a near-comedy about self-absorbed young people desperate to connect and perversely unable to get out of their own way. It seems like the kind of script you might write in the aftermath of a post-breakup acid trip.

COMMENTS: Each of the characters is alone, talking to themselves, when we first meet them. A depressed-sounding man (with an effeminate voice) recites bad advice into a tape recorder (“sometimes, you have to put others down to give yourself a boost in self-esteem”). A Russian immigrant practices saying “nice day” in front of a mirror, trying to erase his accent. A woman takes selfies in her underwear and uploads them to Instagram.  A stand-up comic recites his (not funny) routine and pumps himself up for a performance. A nurse practices saying the word “ow.” One other character pops up (or at least, is properly introduced) after the opening scenes: a chameleon-like woman who lives in the desert and is easily the strangest of them all. Even though these people will spend the rest of the movie bumping into each other, they remain, for the most part, alone; locked inside themselves by their own insecurities.

Social interactions in Birds Without Feathers often make little sense. In one scene, the stand-up is sucker punched by a passerby, then verbally abused by the passing nurse; he then asks for, and receives, her number. Several of the characters do “successfully” hook up together (never more memorably than in one scene that may change the way you think of Jeff Goldblum forever). But more commonly, social intercourse involves a coworker complaining that the dead look in your eyes is making him feel weird, or someone using “you know the awful thing about you?” as a first date conversation starter. A sense of lonely, uncomfortable melancholy pervades.

Writer/director Wendy McColm plays the Instagram model, and congrats to her on giving herself such an unflattering role: not only is Neil/Janet pathetic, she’s also the only character with (bizarre) nude scenes, and she gets her face spackled with white goop while making an uncomfortable confession. McColm’s character is probably the closest thing to a central presence, but the stories are fairly well-balanced between the six main players, with no one performer overly dominating the narrative. Although their lives all intersect at some point, there isn’t much of an overarching plot. Birds Without Feathers is really about a cast of eccentric characters put into a series of sketches. Some are dramatic, and even touching; some are funny (or almost funny, in an awkward shaped-like-a-joke-but-lacking-a-punchline way); and some are just flat-out weird. They’re not all hits, but there are enough good moments and perspective switches to keep you interested. It should go without saying, however, that this one is not for normies.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…plays like ‘Mulholland Dr.’ and ‘Magnolia’ took a detour through Silver Lake, emerging worse for wear from the journey.”–Kimber Myers, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SEX MADNESS REVEALED (2018)

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DIRECTED BY:  Tim Kirk

FEATURINGPatton Oswalt, Rob Zabrecky

PLOT: The viewer watches the old exploitation roadshow feature Sex Madness (1938), synced to a podcast where the “Film Dick” interviews the director’s grandson and uncovers shocking secrets about the production.

Still from Sex Madness Revealed (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a clever idea with a mildly weird twist, but the execution doesn’t live up to the premise’s promise.

COMMENTS: In the early 90s, a troupe of comedians from the Midwest revolutionized bad-movie watching with “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” which you might recognize as that show where silhouettes at the bottom of the screen toss out wisecracks while a giant monster or juvenile delinquent movie unspools in real time. Like Tim Kirk’s previous experiment, Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein (2015), Sex Madness Revealed takes that conceit to the next level: instead of making a series of one-off jokes at the expense of the film, it invents an entire new fictional narrative and overlays it onto the original. Without going too deep into spoiler territory, Revealed proposes that the base movie, the 1930s VD scare film Sex Madness, is actually a coded message from a secret society. It’s a parody of the way certain paranoid fans 1 believe movies work: directors slide secret messages into their work to signal Illuminati connections, or to slyly confess that they faked the moon landing, or whatever. This cinematic conspiracy theme explains why Room 237s signed on as producer.

Sex Madness itself is an oddity, a nearly plotless pastiche of padding, stock footage, subdued salaciousness (an as-titillating-as-possible-at-the-time lesbian seduction), and hypocritical moral shock (grotesque shots of syphilis chancres, both faked and real). The lack of a real plot in Sex Madness leaves the commentators room to speculate and to invent a story that’s more interesting than the one playing out onscreen. The task the writers give themselves is a tough one, and although it is impressive that they are able to craft a meta-narrative that holds water, the script often strains mightily. One character’s passing resemblance to launches a major portion of the plot. Sometimes, the writers inspirations are just silly and don’t come across: for example, a mysterious sound artifact leads to speculation that the actors’ performances are being controlled by the offscreen director via electrical shocks. Some minor observations approach brilliance, however: once the grandson explains that grandfather selected the wood grain in one of the film’s drab office sets for its subliminal vaginal connotations, you’ll never be able to see the room any other way.

The plot is ultimately merely serviceable, and so are the performances. Oswalt and Zabrecky recorded their lines in one day, and it sounds like it. That’s not to say they are bad: they both deliver professional readings. But they don’t have time to dive deeply into their characters to create something more than a competent caricature. As the gung ho but arrogant podcast host, Oswalt is OK, but his character isn’t completely convincing; his exhaustive command of minutiae from the dregs of exploitation cinema (e.g., instant recall of a minor exploitation actresses’ high school mascot) is a little much, even for a bad film nerd. As the eccentric grandson delivering shocking revelations, Zabrecky gives a laid-back but melodramatically sinister performance that also fails to transcend the workmanlike. If you’re drawn to this type of cinema and this type of narrative experiment, the end result is something you might enjoy listening to once; but it’s not a movie with heavy replay value. Which is a shame, since Sex Madness Revealed is currently only available on physical media, whereas it would be a fine choice for a on-demand rental one evening. (If you’re a legitimate fan of Sex Madness itself, by all means buy this disc—and may God have mercy on your soul.)

As usual, Kino Lorber treats even its nichiest releases with respect. Extras on the Sex Madness Revealed DVD or Blu-ray include the option to watch the original version of the film with no commentary track, or to listen to a real commentary track from co-writers Tim Kirk and Patrick Cooper overlaid on top of Oswalt and Zabrecky’s fake commentary track. There’s also the trailer for Kirk’s Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein and a short installment of Rob Zabrecky’s comedy seance series, “Other Side with Zabrecky,” where comedian Will Forte asks to speak to the spirit of . That last one is pretty weird; and, personally, I enjoyed it more than the feature film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the ‘commentary’ is simply not very funny, and in fact may strike some as downright weird.”–Jeffrey Kaufman, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: “DIVORCED DAD” (2018)

DIRECTED BY: , ,

FEATURING: Matthew Kennedy, Gilles Degagne

PLOT: A Divorced Dad and his even sadder-sack co-host, Gilles, produce a public access TV show that continually goes off the rails.

Still from Divorced Dad (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The format—cancelled web series repackaged as a home video release—rules it out from consideration as one of the weirdest movies of all time. It’s more of a supplemental oddity for weird movie fans (even more specifically, for fans).

COMMENTS: Served papers by YouTube after only five official episodes, Canadian comedy troupe Astron-6’s “Divorced Dad” (based, as the opening credits to each episode explain, “on a dream had by Divorced Dad”) never really got the chance to find its footing. Star Divorced Dad and co-host Gilles were developing a classic abusive, co-dependent comedy duo dynamic (if Divorced Dad was as passive-aggressively condescending to his wife and children as he is to the admittedly annoying Gilles, it might explain why he finds himself single). After Divorced Dad’s dreams were shattered for a second time when his mock public access webseries was yanked from the platform, Kino Lorber came to the rescue with this home video release of the show’s complete YouTube run, plus two completed but unaired episodes, and some odds and ends to pad out the disc.

The episode that got the show pulled—“My Sis,” in which Divorced Dad accidentally signs up the Islamic State as beneficiary of his charity bingo show—is hardly the hot stuff one might have predicted, given how quickly the heavy fingers at YouTube corporate pushed the ban button. Ironically, “My Sis” may also have been their most conventionally structured comedy, and could have been a breakout episode. The series’ other sources of mirth were more conceptual bits like Gilles demonstrating less-then-delicate bedroom techniques on fruit, Divorced Dad getting into it with a female “restler,” and the “Treasure Man” parody, a microbudget attempt to create an “Indiana Jones”-style adventure series. Most notably for us, in three episodes he suddenly finds himself lost in existential netherworlds: one where he’s driven mad by the show’s bad sound, one where he overdoses on blue slushies, and one where he zones out while Gilles is misbehaving in the supermarket. The sly surreal comedy in these segments would have been a bit abstruse for the average YouTube surfer.

The visual aesthetic is a drunken take on early 90s cable access TV shows, with vertical hold issues, wandering picture-in-picture effects, and strange lo-fi wipes. Divorced Dad’s video board operator doesn’t pay much attention to what’s going on in the show, instead spending his time checking out what happens when he spins the various knobs and dials before him. The end result is a show that looks like something you might find on an tape, with the absurdist comic sensibilities of an  live-action one-off.

Kudos to Kino Lorber for preserving this chunk of pop-culture flotsam, but… content-wise, it’s a little thin, as the main attraction takes up less than an hour of running time. Commentary tracks for the five original episodes beef up the presentation a bit. Besides the two previously-unseen episodes, extras include unaired footage (most notably, a hilarious faux-promo for “Treasure Man.”) There are also two “Merry Christmas” dispatches from a very depressed Santa (no one wants to hear that jolly old elf pleading “pray for me”). The disc’s hidden treasure, however, is “Chowboys,” a 9-minute short about cowboys on the range who contemplate cannibalism while hallucinating from hunger one chilly Christmas Eve. It’s described (sad spoiler ahead) as “the final film from Astron-6.” This is obviously a must-have release for Astron-6 fans; casual viewers might want to see if they can borrow a copy before shelling out a double-sawbuck, however.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Astron-6’s material may not be for everyone, but for those who have come to appreciate their quirky output, this release comes highly recommended!”–Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (Blu-ray)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: DIAMANTINO (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Daniel Abrantes, Carl Schmidt

FEATURING: Carloto Cotta, Cleo Tavares, Anabela Moreira, Margarida Moreira

PLOT: Portuguese soccer mega star Diamantino leaves his career after a devastating failure at an important match; in his new life, he adopts a refugee and gets embroiled in an odd conspiracy involving espionage, genetic experimentation, Neo-fascism and nationalism.

Still from Diamantino (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The moment the football pitch is invaded by giant fluffy dogs and pink clouds, you’ll know this is not a conventional film. The plot continues to accumulate bizarre twists and turns, from attempts to clone Diamantino to an offbeat far-right conspiracy that almost puts Alex Jones to shame.

COMMENTS: The greatest satire is played in such a completely straight way that it could almost be taken seriously. This applies to the grandiose introductory scene to Diamantino… until the fluffy dogs pop up, that is. Our titular protagonist recalls in voiceover how his father admired the sublime paintings of Michelangelo and their ability to raise people’s faith. He then claims his son will be the next Michelangelo, not through painting, but through the art of the “new cathedrals,” the football (soccer) stadiums; as he we hear this, the camera approaches one of these in all its glory in a stately aerial shot.

We’re introduced to the heroic figure of Diamantino in a decisive moment of great distress. On the soccer field, he feels the weight of an entire nation on his shoulders; like always, the vision of giant fluffy dogs comes to aid him in his next attempt at scoring a goal. If he fails, Portugal will be eliminated from the World Cup. Despite his reputation for near infallibility, he misses it. Commentators immediately echo the tremendous shock and grief of the audience: “The greatest tragedy since the Greeks”; “Will Portugal survive this?”, they remark.

While this apotheosis of soccer may give the impression of the film’s satire being mainly directed at Portuguese society (where football has a famously disproportionate relevance), that’s only the case for this particular aspect of the plot. In the midst of the film’s zany narrative and irreverent humor (mirrored by the quirky and colorful visual style), the centerpiece is the protagonist’s journey, conveyed through an admirable and committed performance by Carloto Cotta.

As it turns out, Diamantino is “innocent,” his cognitive abilities equivalent to those of a 10 year old child. This trait is not used, however, to make him a crude caricature of celebrity soccer stardom 1; to the contrary, he is portrayed in the most sympathetic way such a satire can afford. There is a clear, strong charm to the Diamantino’s “innocence”; or, shall we say, purity. It obviously leads to comedic moments, but the film’s overall honesty and lack of cynicism provides its emotional core.

Diamantino’s childlike innocence and utter absence of malice is evident in everything he says or does. Seemingly disconnected from political reality altogether, he first learns of refugees when he sees them from his private yacht. The sight impacts him so much that, after his fall from grace and abandonment of his soccer career, he immediately decides to adopt one. In the first of the film’s twists, the refugee he adopts turns out to be a spy. Eventually, Diamantino’s cartoonishly cruel and opportunistic sisters, who treat him tyrannically and run his offshore account without his knowledge (he doesn’t even know what an offshore account is), turn to genetic experiments that are connected to a hilariously convoluted conspiracy involving the soccer star’s participation in commercials and to a (fictional) far-right political party’s plan to jettison Portugal from the European Union.

The film insists on situating its plot in today’s turbulent sociopolitical landscape. While this commentary has its relevance, it’s not developed with the detail and acidic incisiveness that would be expected from a true political satire, which will disappoint viewers craving something along these lines. The main function of these elements is to provide background for the personal story of Diamantino; they reveal how his innocence makes him a pawn of every entity willing to cash on his immense popularity, from major organizations to his own sisters, who treat him like an object through which they can attain their goals.

Not all of the film’s threads come together satisfyingly; in particular, the central relationship between Diamantino and the fake refugee/spy isn’t sufficiently fleshed out in to give the ending the punch it aims for. Due to the overall strength of the experience and the compelling portrait of its titular tragicomic figure, these inconsistencies come off as minor flaws. The film’s delightfully crazy sense of humor and surreally satirized reality, contrasted with the sincerity with which it treats its main character, makes for a definite achievement.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Part political satire, part fantasy, part I-don’t-even-know-what, Diamantino is exactly the type of surreal concoction that begs to be discovered by unsuspecting audiences.”–Barry Hertz, The Globe and Mail (festival screening)