Tag Archives: 2019

CAPSULE: REDOUBT (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Matthew Barney

FEATURING: Anette Wachter, Matthew Barney, Eleanor Bauer, Laura Stokes, K.J. Holmes

PLOT: In remote Idaho, Diana and her two assistants hunt, observed by an Engraver.

Still from Redoubt (2019)

COMMENTS: A dialogue-free exploration of the myth of Diana the Huntress set in Idaho’s ridiculously beautiful Sawtooth Mountains, Redoubt is a level beyond art-house; it’s art installation. Diana (played by U.S. National Rifle Team member Anette Wachter) is a mysterious sharpshooter camping in a tent in the wilderness. She’s accompanied by two female assistants, contortionists who sleep together in a hammock tied high in the pines and who express themselves solely through interpretive dance. Meanwhile, an Engraver (Barney himself: the character seems to be both a forest ranger and an artist) ventures into the mountains and etches landscapes. At night, he returns to his trailer, where a woman (presumably his wife) electroplates the day’s metal engravings; she’s also working on an abstract sculpture based on a constellation. We observe every step in the creative process. At one point the Engraver watches a Native American woman perform a hoop dance at an American Legion building in an otherwise deserted town. The “action” is divided into a series of “hunts,” although there is little story development. Eventually, Diana catches the Engraver spying on her, shoots one of his engravings, and finally sets a pack of wolves loose in his trailer. Unlike the mythological Acateon, who was transformed into a stag and killed by his own hunting dogs after catching a glimpse of the goddess bathing nude, the Engraver merits divine wrath simply by the act of creating his art, as if act of trying to capture nature is itself a transgression.

There is some fantastic imagery here, capped by the National Geographic-style mountain cinematography (at one point, it captures an avalanche) and the finale which shows the artist’s lair chewed over by lupine chaos. If you enjoy the kinesthetics of the human body in motion, the limber dancing (by professionals who are often clad in long johns) will have an additional appeal. The austerity of the glacially-paced, low-narrative presentation, accompanied only by minimalistic music and the sounds of footsteps in snow and occasional bird calls, is as cold as an Idaho morning, however, and will limit Redoubt‘s appeal. Nonetheless, this is Matthew Barney’s version of an accessible art-house film.

At this point, you might be wondering, “where have I heard the name Matthew Barney?” Barney is the sculptor/filmmaker responsible for the celebrated/infamous films that comprise the Cremaster cycle (which featured hermetic symbolism, bizarre costuming, and such provocative imagery as a bee flying out of a man’s penis). He followed that performance up with the 330-minute scatological film opera River of Fundament. His films incorporate his sculptures and other multimedia (a book accompanies each), and are typically screened only at museums. Only once1 has Barney allowed his work to appear outside of a museum setting: The Order, a 30-minute re-edit of Cremaster 3, which was printed in limited quantities and commands a premium on the secondary market. Redoubt represents, to my knowledge, the first time he has worked with an actual film distributor (Grasshopper). It’s being released this winter to a few select art-house cinemas as well as the usual museums, which is a welcome development. (You can check out the screening schedule at Grasshopper’s website). The scarcity of Barney’s work contributes greatly to its legendary status, but let’s hope that the increased distribution of Redoubt represents a loosening of the artist’s strictures. Maybe as he ages and mellows he’ll break his vow to never release the Cremasters commercially. Or at least let us poor schlubs see River of Fundament on Blu-ray. Probably not, but hope springs eternal.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an eminently accessible version of the avant-garde.”–Pat Brown, Slant (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: GREENER GRASS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe, Beck Bennett, Neil Casey

PLOT: In the pastel roadways of an uncanny suburbia, Jill gives her baby away to a friend and then starts losing everything else she holds dear.

Still from Greener Grass (2019)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: In case you were thinking that Hell Suburbia was over and done with as a genre, think again. Greener Grass piles the golf carts, dental perfection, tight-femme-mom-chic pinks, and non-sequitur Valley Girl dialogue high on a teetering mound of absurdity, satire, comedy, and dystopia.

COMMENTS: Everyone envies Jill (Joceyln DeBoer). Her best friend Lisa is jealous of her baby immediately upon belatedly noticing it for the very first time. Another friend is amazed at the canapés she brought to her daughter’s birthday party. (“They’re so small!”) Her son is in the school’s elite “Rocket Math” program. Her home is pitch-perfect “Better Homes & Gardens” elegance, complete with a new pool whose oxygen filtration system makes its water, according to her husband, delicious. Her teeth are getting better, too; like every other adult in her town, she has braces.

Beginning with an impulsive effort to please her best friend (Dawn Luebbe, all glorious awkwardness and legs), Jill’s life starts sliding downhill. Handing off her baby to its new owner (cue portentous music) we see Jill’s awkward smile, which continues during the opening credits, filling up the entire screen, the rictus grin quavering throughout, then continuing to quaver on and off through the entire movie. Greener Grass blinds us with its pink and glossy-white vision of a post-utopian Suburbia. These folks have every comfort, and so fall back on one-upmanship and staggering vapidity. Jill’s cracks at the start become fissures during her husband’s 40th birthday party, when their son, himself quavering in his awkwardness, feebly croons the “birthday song” before collapsing into the immaculate pool, emerging as an immaculate yellow retriever. (His father is thrilled at the change.)

I don’t know the history of evilly pristine suburbs, but David Lynch‘s Blue Velvet is as good a landmark as any. While his had an underside of all-too-human unpleasantness, Greener Grass doesn’t allow for a speck of what we’d recognize as genuine humanity. There is no controversy or evil, just pettiness: withering criticism of a child’s tardiness—directed against Jill; dismissiveness of a gift of bean dip (being a mere five layers instead of seven)—directed against Jill; chastisement for being “rude” at a four-way intersection—directed against Jill.

Greener Grass is something of a feminist movie, but it points out that some of women’s worst enemies can be their fellow women. Jill’s friend attempts to take over her life from the start, beginning with the baby, before moving on to subtly co-opting everything else. This Mean Girls reality—one seen through (ominously) rose-colored lenses—creates something entirely unexpected: a sympathetic character amidst the dross of upper-middle class nothings. I couldn’t describe the tone simply as being “heavy-handed”; although it’s like a shotgun to the face for ninety minutes, it’s saturated as much by weirdo, “Upright Citizens Brigade”-style comedy as it is with social criticism. “Miss Human”, the second-grade teacher, with her Oregon Trail-style lesson plans; the “French”-style bistro replete with beret-wearing waiter fops; and the father’s beaming pride at his son’s new speed and charisma as a dog: these are all odd, and well executed—and taken as far as possible without letting up. Jill’s torment never ceases, but she never stops smiling. Ever.

Greener Grass was expanded from a 15-minute short (a Saturday Short selection, natch)—you can view it here.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…future cult favorite — a fate that seems all but guaranteed for this weird and wonderful comedy of manners…” –Peter DeBruge, Variety (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE FOREST OF LOVE (2019)

Ai-naki Mori de Sakebe

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Kippei Shîna, Eri Kamataki, , Kyoko Hinami, Sei Matobu

PLOT: A group of young filmmakers make a movie about a con-man they suspect of being a serial killer, but he turns the tables on them when he offers to produce the film, then turns the crew into a sadomasochistic cult of killers.

Still from The Forest of Love (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Sion Sono doesn’t do “normal”; he goes for broke on every project. Forest of Love is overlong, ugly, perverse, masturbatory, and fascinating.

COMMENTS: The intricate plot of Forest of Love includes, among other things, a “Romeo and Juliet” centered lesbian love triangle, a schoolgirl suicide pact, a Svengali-like conman who seduces younger women into sadomasochistic relationships, an outlaw film crew who act like the Manson cult and run around Japan committing murders, bourgeois parents given a punk makeover, days of wine and electrocution, ghosts, and possible identity switches at the end. Sono purportedly based the screenplay on a real-life killer, but I’m thinking that he might have changed a few of the details.

The Forest of Love is a bruising movie. Its two-and-a-half hour length would normally only pose a minor challenge to the viewer, but the extreme level of emotional cruelty Sono wallows in makes it into more of an endurance test. The suicide attempts are particularly brutal, not only because of the squirmy gore, but also due to the callous reactions (the family here finds suicide shameful, and are more concerned with covering up the disgrace than empathizing with their suffering child). But although many stretches of the film are nightmarish episodes of physical and psychological torture that feel like they’re never going to end, there are also moments of incredible beauty (slo-mo schoolgirls in their underwear singing and dancing to Pachelbel’s “Canon”) and black comedy (Murata, taking on the persona of a rock star, hosts a concert with an audience stocked with his previous marks).

Sono mixes elements that are purely exploitative (and often frankly sick) with gorgeous mise en scene, expert style, and just enough intellectualism and self-reflection to overcome charges of pandering. In true Surrealist fashion, he attacks the basic institutions of society, showing Murata molding those in his orbit into an obscene mockery of a nuclear family. But he contrasts this caricature with a portrait of a real dysfunctional Japanese family that is even worse, because it is so real. There’s a lot of subtle mirroring in the plot; the teasing play between the lesbian trio in flashbacks reflect the sadomasochistic dynamics we see between Murata and the two girls, and between Murata and the two young male filmmakers. One figure is always playing off two against each other.

Sono also treads a fine line between realism and absurdity.  Murata manipulates his marks subtly, so that when they go along with his requests it seems almost reasonable at first; he then pushes them further and further until murder seems not only natural, but inevitable. Murata isn’t physically imposing and is greatly outnumbered, so all it would take to frustrate his plans is for any individual to stand up to him at any point. But cowering before his bullying seems reasonable; you see how they fear him, and feel their fear. No one wants to be the first to call him out, because he seldom dishes out punishment himself, instead commanding another to do the dirty work for him. As long as you are the one Murata asks to wield the electrical paddle against the disobedient, you won’t be on the receiving end. Of course, that respite only lasts until you displease the master; but you can see how easy it is for everyone to fall in line. By the time things get truly ridiculous, with the austere father sporting a mohawk and chugging a beer while assaulting his honored relatives, the audience has been brought along so slowly—like the proverbial frog boiled in a pot of gradually warming water—that it almost seems believable. (Of course, the finale will blow any claim to non-hallucinatory realities out of the water).

The fascist element of Murata’s charisma, coupled with the satire aimed at the Japanese family and society, suggests a political allegory. But I couldn’t help theorizing that Sono sees himself as something of a Murata… at least, recognizes that he has the potential within him to be a Murata. In the very first scene, in Murata tells a waiter he’s a screenwriter, and wonders out loud what it feels like to kill someone. The many generic references to other Sono movies and themes—the self-destruction pact like in Suicide Club, filmmakers documenting real crimes like in Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, the manipulative serial killer straight out of Cold Fish—only reinforce that sense of self-identification. “Crimes are fun in the movies and in real life,” muses one character. Does the impulse to film such dark fantasies say something about Sono? What does our desire to watch them say about us? Is Sono a con-man implicating us in his cinematic crimes? Sono fools around with those ideas, blurring the lines between representation and reality; he’s in a sadomasochistic relationship with his own demonic persona.

It’s a sign of Sono’s rising prestige that Netflix would sign him for an original exclusive production just like an Alfonso Cuarón or a , and give him carte blanche to make a movie so transgressive that people might think it really was made by a serial killer. It’s a sign of Sono’s continued outlaw status that Netflix would then hide the finished product away, not giving it a token theatrical release like Roma or The Irishman.

Forest of Love was Sono’s first film project after returning to work from a heart attack in February of this year. It was funded by, and screens exclusively on, Netflix (unfortunately, they did not give it even a token theatrical release). The dubbed version plays by default, so look around in your settings to switch it to the original Japanese with subtitles for a better experience.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sion Sono does not care that his movie is too long. He doesn’t care that it’s weird or gross or inconsistent or anything that a producer’s note might protest. We see so many movies every year that feel like the product of a focus group or marketing team. Not this one.”–Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: K-12 (2019)

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DIRECTED BY:  Melanie Martinez, Alissa Torvinen

FEATURING: Melanie Martinez, Emma Harvey

PLOT: A girl with superpowers is sent to “K-12,” a school run by despots who control the students with propaganda and medication.

Still from K-12 (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s basically an elaborate music video aimed at teenage girls, a lesson in lightly weird fantasy that will hopefully prime them for much stranger stuff later on.

COMMENTS: One of the unanticipated benefits of aging is that you’re no longer involuntarily exposed to pop music of the day and (unless you’re cursed with a teenage daughter) you can proceed through life blissfully unaware of the beats that set young feet to dancing. So, it’s with some perverse pride that I can say, until stories about her releasing a free movie—a reputedly weird one—started dropping on social media, I didn’t know who platinum-selling artist Melanie Martinez was.

Martinez is 24 years old, but her music aims at a younger audience. Her trademark look is her two-toned hair, split into brunette and blond (sometimes pink) hemispheres. K-12 is her second full-length album, and this accompanying feature-length movie version incorporates all the songs. In K-12 Martinez plays a character named “Cry Baby,” (also the title of her first album) a childlike alter-ego of uncertain age. The songs deal with topics like bulimia, body image, pervy teachers, and boys.

It’s not G-rated fluff; there’s plenty of casual cussing, cannabis references, and adult content. Despite the sometimes dark subject matter (and kids today do have it hard), this is not quite the tween girl’s version of The Wall. But it does have a reasonable amount of music video-inspired strangeness to it. There’s not a lot of plot—it’s more a series of grammar school-based tableaux—but it’s not just an abstract “visual album,” either. Martinez creates a linking narrative, and it can be bizarre. Despite the fact that she’s a beautiful woman, she successfully casts herself as an outsider by focusing on her one physical flaw: she’s teased for her gap teeth. She’s not one of the cool girls, but an actual freak; along with some of her outcast friends, Cry Baby has Carrie-like telekinetic powers (although don’t look for any buckets of pigs’ blood, which would be a little too gross for the aesthetic she’s going for here). Mean girls and despotic administrators provide foils. Cry Baby also has plenty of potential male suitors, although her most important relationships are with her female friends.

The art direction is aggressively pink, right down to the school bus that hauls the kids away to the sleepaway school. Wardrobe and decor is wistfully Victorian (it’s all inspired by Lolita fashion). The hare-headed proctors suggest “.” is an obvious inspiration for the look. The politics are naively progressive, and sometimes shoehorned in clumsily (Martinez throws in a black lives matter protest, a trans teacher, and outrage over the lack of free tampons in the girls’ bathroom). The choreography starts out slow, but turns into a strong point by the end, even including an aqua ballet a la Esther Williams at one point. The music is… not my thing. And while none of this sounds especially promising, there are a good number of pleasantly surreal bits sprinkled through the production numbers: a flying school bus. A chalk-sniffing teacher. A ghost who gives advice about self-actualization and reincarnation. Melanie’s nipple-free topless scene. Eyeball-swapping. A snap-off skull. Magic spit bubbles. One young fan commented “this had a lot of weird, almost too much.”

I suspect most of our readers aren’t in K-12‘s target demographic. But there’s a wide world of weird out there, and it’s always good to start young. K-12 may not be especially deep or sophisticated, but it is pretty and off-the-wall. Martinez deserves some praise for attempting something with more artistic ambition than her audience requires of her.

K-12 was originally offered for free on YouTube, although that deal expired after a few weeks. You can still catch it with a YouTube Premium or Amazon Prime subscription, however. Martinez promises two followup movies to continue the Cry Baby saga.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Just when you think you’re settling in for a candy-colored PSA, things get very, very weird.”–Mike Wass, Idolator (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TONE-DEAF (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Richard Bates Jr.

FEATURING: Amanda Crew, Robert Patrick, Kim Delaney

PLOT: After losing her boyfriend and her job, young adult Olive takes a vacation by herself at an airbnb rental in the country; unfortunately, her landlord is a millennial-hating boomer with murder on his mind.

Still from Tone-Deaf (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A horror-comedy that’s allegedly a satire of generational conflict, Tone-Deaf is neither scary nor funny—and although it does get a little weird, it doesn’t get weird enough to overcome its other handicaps.

COMMENTS: For the record (and I don’t consider this a spoiler) the title refers to protagonist Olive’s literal tone-deafness, the source of a running joke about how she’s a terrible piano player. Since her parents and friends all tell her she’s a whiz on the ivories, she never figures out that she can’t play, despite the fact that her renditions sound only slightly better than a drunk cat crawling across the keyboard.

See the satire? Or is it too subtle?

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that, as opposed to deep-seated prejudices about race and sex, the present (and perennial) generational conflict is relatively genial and jokey: “you kids get off my lawn!,” “in my day we walked to school uphill—both ways.”1 Although there was a brief “participation trophy” furor a few years back, in general, the ribbings oldsters give youngsters, and vice-versa, aren’t taken too seriously by either side. After all, the Boomers were the “Me Generation” that the “Greatest Generation” accused of being soft; for them to turn around and make the same claims about millennials is an absurd (if inevitable) example of history repeating itself. The Boomer-millennial clash just isn’t that serious or rancorous, so satirizing it isn’t bold or dangerous; in fact, it seems like a deflection to avoid addressing the real destructive partisan divide in today’s America. And, in the end, Tone-Deaf‘s screenplay refuses to firmly commit to either side, making us wonder what the point of the entire exercise was.

That lack of focus wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the jokes were funny. I think I chuckled once, during an unexpected deadpan cultural appropriation joke. But for the most part you see the jabs coming; they’re all telegraphed, far too obvious to catch you off guard. Heck, Harvey even breaks the fourth wall to rant about kids today, so you couldn’t accuse the script of trusting the audience to be smart enough to get the point. And yet, Tone-Deaf isn’t a complete misfire. Although the high concept misses the mark, there’s enough going on that the movie becomes watchable. Since a feature length film has a lot of time to fill between the time Olive checks in and Harvey tries to forcibly check her out, the script has to find something else for the slasher and victim to do while waiting for the final showdown. That means some unexpected plot turns, including a Tinder date in a cowboy bar and a car wash that sells drugs. Demented killer Robert Patrick’s performance can be fun, in a crusty old fart swinging a tire iron kind of way. The best parts of the film are the left-field ian touches. Harvey has a series of psycho-sexual nightmares featuring art-installation models in blue latex body paint that are funnier parodies than anything else in the script. And a cameo by —looking a bit like the Amazing Criswell lit by a multicolored strobe light during an acid trip—is a highlight (the man’s a real pro). These bits suggest a better, wilder B-movie hiding somewhere inside this misfire.

The filmmakers had to know from the outset that reviewers were going to dub this a “Tone-Deaf satire.” (It’s probably a good thing they didn’t name it Ham-Fist, although that title would have lent itself to even more accurate critical quips).

Richard Bates, Jr. made a minor splash in the indie horror world with his 2012 debut, Excision, but has since failed to follow up on that success. Tone-Deaf won’t revive his fading reputation, but there are enough shiny baubles buried under the dross to make us not want to give up on him just yet.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Tone-Deaf’ is devilishly hilarious for the first two acts, diving into murky psychological waters to trigger some spooky and surreal stuff for genre fans, but also retaining a defined sense of humor, with amusing amplification of common generational issues, having a good time poking a stick at people of all ages.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (contemporaneous)