Tag Archives: 2019

CAPSULE: TOMMASO (2019)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Cristina Chiriac

PLOT: An aging American director living in Rome goes to AA meetings and struggles to relate to his much younger Moldavian wife.

Still from Tommaso (2019)

COMMENTS: It may be inevitable that as Abel Ferrara has aged and sobered up, he’s started to make self-consciously serious movies aimed at art houses, as opposed to the wild and exploitative hits like Ms. 45 (1981) and Bad Lieutenant (1992) that originally brought him cult fame. While his movies once graced grindhouses, prior to Tommaso Ferrara was last seen at the Venice Film Festival pushing a prestige biopic about fellow bad-boy director .

Now, he’s back with a navel-gazing domestic drama that’s heavy on scenes of walking though Roman streets, Italian lessons, squabbling spouses, and Alcoholics Anonymous testimonials. There is no doubt that Tommaso is Ferrara: an ex-alcoholic movie director living in Rome with a much younger foreign wife and daughter (who are played by Ferrara’s real-life wife and daughter). We also see him working on a movie screenplay (which, from the Eskimos and bears, one guesses is destined to become the soon-to-be-released Siberia). Ferrara wisely chooses the great Willem Dafoe as his stand-in: even when he’s cheating, or thinking of cheating, or having grandiose messianic fantasies, Dafoe is weighty and likable. He finds the legitimate human confusion and suffering that makes us empathize with every indulgence. (Although he’s awesome as always here, I still wish Dafoe would take fewer roles playing elderly filmmakers who can’t distinguish fantasy from reality and more roles playing foul-mouthed and flatulent 19th century lighthouse keepers).

The numerous fantasy segments scattered throughout this self-searching autobiographical character study give it the esque credibility required in the subgenre. Some of them nakedly illustrate Tommaso’s insecurities. He imagines his child in danger, his wife unfaithful. Others are more inscrutable: a Kafkaesque detention dream, or Tommaso literally pulling out his own heart while sitting around a squatters’ campfire. The finale is imaginary and catalysimic. But no matter their subject, the hallucinations do not seriously impede on the movie’s basic plotlessnesses, its focus on marital discord and sarcastic self-reflection.

Tommaso’s anxiety about whether his wife will seek comfort in the arms of someone closer to her own age, and his struggle with his own controlling nature—even with yoga and breathing exercises, he’s awfully high-strung and quick to jealous anger—form the essence of his internal conflict. Although his wife Nikki can occasionally seem a little bit immature (“I want to do what I want, when I want…”), Tommaso consistently comes off much worse. At one point, he spends his entire turn at an AA meeting complaining about his wife; the next speaker empathizes with him, but also offers some wisdom: “this program teaches me to stick to my side of the street… whenever I’m pointing a finger, I’ve got to look at myself.” The message is lost on Tommaso, however, who continues his bossy behavior, and flirts with other women while imagining Nikki is cheating on him.

This unflattering portrayal, of course, is Ferrara’s way of working out his own issues and anxieties on film—a public confessional that is as brave as it is uncomfortable for the viewer. After watching Tomasso, I feel like I know Ferrara intimately—more intimately than I should know a stranger.  On the other hand, I keep thinking about an AA speech where Tommaso describes those long-ago times when he directed indie movies by day and smoked crack and got pounded in the face by jealous boyfriends by night—and kept thinking how I wanted to see that memoir, instead of the one I was currently watching.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Much of the film feels as though it is going through the movements of a surrealist film, though lacking the dedication. It wants to be surrealist, giving a message in the symbolism of the film, though teasing audiences with a cohesive narrative that never truly arrives.”–Stephanie Archer, Film Inquiry (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: COMA (2019)

Recommended

Koma

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DIRECTED BY: Nikita Argunov

FEATURING: Rinal Mukhametov, Lyubov Aksyonova,

PLOT: Viktor awakens in his apartment to find the walls decaying in reverse and a strange cavalcade of architectural wonders dotting the skyline at improbable angles; then, he finds himself on the run from giant monsters.

COMMENTS: The title gives away the gimmick, and I knew it did—but I didn’t care. Even before we see our protagonist try and fail to obtain his bearings when he awakens in his apartment, we’re smacked with a beautiful show of some top-notch, wonderfully creative CGI buildings making up a future city whose center is graced with what looks like a modern reimagining of the Monument to the Third International. St. Basil‘s architectural motifs round out the metropolis. What is Coma? It’s a Dark City/Inception knock-off, sure, but a vodka-drenched one. And it’s all the more entertaining for it.

Viktor (Rinal Mukhametov), we eventually learn, was in a car crash while fleeing out-of-focus assailants. In Coma-land, Viktor immediately has to flee all-too-menacingly in-focus monsters: tall, thin-limbed beasts made of an ever-flowing inky substance catch sight of him as he exits his apartment. Just in the nick of time, a grizzled gang of survivors spots him and hoofs him out of trouble. There’s Phantom, the cynical soldier; there’s Fly, the female healer. Back at the survivor’s camp—reached via a multiplanar, but very stationary, bus wreck—there’s Yal, the older leader guy and… many more. Why did Yal send out his crack squad to get this ungainly beardo? We learn through exposition, montage, and a Moment of Trial.

The dismissiveness you may have detected here is meant as no more than gentle ribbing. Coma does a number of things incredibly well, not the least of which was keep my rapt attention throughout. Disregarding the (fairly) serviceable story and the (not too terribly) cardboard characters, we are left with a ceaselessly interesting vista of interconnected, odd-angled planes: different memories, we are told, of different inhabitants of Coma-land. They’re connected by wisps of ground; or not, as Viktor learns when he has to run straight down a pier to jump up into a piazza looming above. Firefights in this realm give “death from above” new meaning. And when our hero—an architect—learns how to use his special gift, things get even cooler.

The explanation provided for all this fantasy undermines the narrative while building its intellectual merits. I shan’t reveal the reveal, but suffice it to say, (movie) science has an explanation for all the goings-on, and it seems we may be bearing witness to one man’s pursuit of immortality. This being a Russian film, I cannot help veering into some sociopolitical observation. Viktor, in his waking life, seems to have been an idiot savant, an architect ahead of his time who was led to believe he could go on to create great, new things. As Yal makes very clear: in modern day Russia, change is only possible in your dreams.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Surreal, engaging, and philosophical, Coma’s creativity designs action around any possibility while debating life’s reality.”–Matt Paprocki, Do-Blu.com (Blu-ray)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 CAPSULE: TEZUKA’S BARBARA (2019)

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

DIRECTED BY: Macoto Tezuka

FEATURING: Gorô Inagaki, Fumi Nikaidô

PLOT: Yosuke Mikura, a popular writer facing a creative lull, meets Barbara and develops an obsession with her.

COMMENTS: Damn it, Barbara, you were so very close. Your devil-may-care manic-pixie-dream-girl self was crafted by one of Japan’s most renowned manga artists. You were brought to life in a ragged city milieu, spouting poetry. You toyed so mischievously with the mind of a famous young writer. Your mother constantly wore a helmet-hat made out of cherry cordials. You knocked back 50-year-old single malt Scotch like the pro I always wanted to be. And you just up and dropped the frickin’ ball—right on my eyeball.

It is only because I want to give Osamu Tezuka a fair shake in the future that I won’t hold Tezuka’s Barbara against him. His work might someday actually achieve the weirdness I was looking for, instead of just shamelessly flirting with it. Yosuke is a dull cipher of a protagonist, but that’s fine; all the better to provide the viewer a lens through which to witness the following: frantic lovemaking to a living mannequin cut short by a deft, head-removing smack from a liquor bottle; unsettling voodoo-doll machinations targeted against Barbara’s romantic rival; sociopolitical commentary in the form of Yosuke’s scheming fiancée’s scheming-er father; an all-nude “old religion,” hyper-ritualized with body-oiling wedding ceremony; and promises of necrophilia followed by a cannibalistic snack. But everything collapses into gauzy, melodramatic mush.

If you hear bitterness in my tone, I can assure you it’s there. I had the Apocrypha Candidate review all lined up in my head as I watched Barbara. I was going to compare it to Naked Lunch, due to the films’ shared urban filth and dissonant jazz score. I was going to quip that “Barbara is exactly the girl that Céline and Julie would have met and eaten strange candies with during their Junior year abroad.” Now, I won’t be able to revel in the clever observations about how Barbara captured low-literary romance with high production values.

Instead, I found myself on tenterhooks waiting for the movie’s half-dozen-plus weird ingredients to turn the corner; “weirdus interruptus” doesn’t even begin to describe the disappointment. This is a review written out of spite, and I wouldn’t blame management for not posting it. However, as Yosuke needed to get Barbara out of his system, I desperately needed to get Barbara out of mine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… an exceedingly bizarre love story that is too distanced to be moving, but still has its visual and other pleasures..” -Deborah Young, The Hollywood Reporter (festival screening)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: LABYRINTH OF CINEMA (2019)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Takuro Atsuki, Rei Yoshida, Yukihiro Takahashi, Takato Hosoyamada, Yoshihiko Hosoda,

PLOT: Japanese teenagers find themselves thrown into the movies screening at a cinema on the last night before it closes.

Still from Labyrinth of Cinema (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s final movie, completed only months before his death, is an exuberant, monumental, poetic and surreal ode to the power of cinema.

COMMENTS: I’d advise letting yourself get lost inside Nobuhiko Obayashi‘s Labyrinth of Cinema. Due to the way it hops around between eras and genres, the story may be easier to follow for those familiar with pre-WWII Japanese cinema; but given that the movie begins by introducing one Fanta G, a time-traveler who arrives in modern-day Onomichi, Japan, in a spaceship with goldfish floating inside it, it’s fair to say that narrative logic is not uppermost on Obayashi’s mind. This is a movie with atmosphere to absorb and imagery to intoxicate.

“Movies are a cutting edge time machine,” Fanta G tells us. “You’ll experience time lags in this movie.” You have been fairly warned. After he lands his spacecraft in the harbor and makes his way to Onomichi’s only cinema for the all-night war movie marathon, we’re introduced to the rest of the main characters. Noriko is a 13-year old schoolgirl from a nearby island who almost always appears onscreen bathed in an idyllic blue light. Teenage film buff “Mario Baba” is smitten with her; he sits in the audience with two companions, a nerdy aspiring historian and the son of a monk who intends to become a yakuza. As the first feature begins, Noriko climbs onstage and begins tap dancing in front of the screen; when she hops into the film itself, no one in the audience bats an eye. The three boys soon find themselves mysteriously absorbed into the screen, as well. But the movie keeps changing, and the trio find themselves involved in musicals, samurai films, and wartime adventures, playing out various scenarios, but always pursuing Noriko, who serves both as damsel in distress and an ever-receding symbol of the epiphanic power of cinema itself. The skipping-through-film-history format plays out like a live action variation on Millennium Actress, but with an even more dislocated plot.

Most long movies are slow-paced, languorously stretching out to fill the available time, but Labyrinth of Cinema jets like a rocket through its three-hour tour of Japanese cinema. This makes it exhilarating, but also a little exhausting. Besides the constantly shifting plots—the teenage trio find themselves in new roles, facing new adversaries, every five minutes or so—Obayashi constantly switches styles. He recreates traditional genres, but also throws his own immersion-breaking visual trickery onscreen: vertical wipes, big blocks of primary color, actors enclosed in circular irises that resemble the Japanese flag, blazing computer-generated sunsets, and sidebar text commenting on the action (when one character first appears, he shows us a legend cheekily explaining “we don’t know his name yet”). Along the way we get plenty of the surreal touches we’d expect from the mind that gave us Hausu, including a piano tune played by bullets, and an emotional death scene with a woman who just happens to be sporting a Hitler mustache. Many such surprises lurk inside this maze of movies.

The pace slows a bit after intermission as the story makes its way towards its climax at Hiroshima. A strong and consistently humanist anti-war theme runs through the entire film, but the main focus is always on the cinematic form itself. Labyrinth of Cinema is an ode to the ways in which movies both distort and inform reality; it’s Obayashi‘s love letter to the art to which he devoted his life, shown as much from the perspective of a fan as of a craftsman. While doubtlessly the epic could have been edited down for clarity—and might have been, had Obayashi survived to tinker with it further—much of the movie’s ramshackle extravagance would have been lost. I’m not sure we would want to lose a single second of Obayashi’s last gift to the world.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…bursting with energy, passion and dreamlike invention… the border between reality and fantasy dissolves into a colorful alternative universe that is uniquely Obayashi’s.”–Mark Schilling, Japan Times (contemporaneous)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 CAPSULE: CLIMATE OF THE HUNTER (2019)

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

DIRECTED BY: Mickey Reece

FEATURING: Ginger Gilmartin, Mary Buss, Ben Hall

PLOT: Two sisters in their autumn years await the arrival of a childhood friend for whom they each have romantic ambitions.

COMMENTS: There is an elegance to the “Academy ratio” that has by and large been abandoned since the mass television market adopted “widescreen” (in particular, 16:9) as the standard ratio. The classic 4:3 ratio, found in older films and prevalent through much of television’s history, allows for an intimacy that is lost in typical widescreen extravaganzas. The extra frame space can be useful for many genres—from art-house films, with their precision framing and staging, to action films, with their need for as much visual noise as possible—but melodramas benefit greatly from the Academy ratio’s truncatedness: the focus is put right on to the characters as they interact.

This intimacy is among the many throwback elements found in Mickey Reece’s Climate of the Hunter. Another is stylized dialogue, as exemplified by the nebulous love interest, Wes (played with supreme suavité by Ben Hall). A writer by a profession, and a vampire by rumor, Wes’ fluorishes and bons mots might come across as stilted, but never quite sound unreal. This brings me to the third trick up Reece’s sleeve: he makes  Climate feel like a high-end soap opera that’s been cranked up–but just a little bit. It never feels like parody, but walks ever so precariously along that knife-edge.

Climate of the Hunter is little more than a stylish oddity, but I felt compelled to bring it to your attention because it not only bumps up just below the “Recommended” mark, but also the “Apocrypha Candidate” mark. The love triangle between Wes and the two sisters plays like riffing on , with each of their styles grounding the others’ particular excesses. The film’s few defects (an unpleasantly tone-jarring “mini-montage” when the crazier sister gears up for a vampire-hunting encounter is almost a body-blow to the movie) are forgivable given the otherwise flawless atmosphere of high melodrama and playful art-house. Such presentational precision, harnessed for such an unclear story, makes Climate of the Hunter worth a look for anyone who realizes that a vampire’s life must be a deft mixture of the ornate and the dishonest.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I’m not gonna lie, folks. Climate of the Hunter is weird. It’s so incredibly weird… And yet. I found it incredibly watchable and could not hit stop…”–Terry Mesnard, Gayly Dreadful (festival screening)