Tag Archives: 2019

CAPSULE: SIBERIA (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Abel Ferrara

FEATURING: Willem Dafoe

PLOT: The owner of an outpost on the snowy outskirts of nowhere journeys through the countryside and his memories alongside his team of dogs.

COMMENTS: Were I to pitch this disingenuously, I could make the case that this movie is weird. There’s the chanting dwarf woman in her wheelchair, in a cave. Willem Dafoe dances around a maypole with a dozen or so children. And at one point a dead fish in a metal dish utters some cryptic remarks. Cryptic, now, that’s something that Siberia has in a spades. Once again, Abel Ferrara is working with Willem Dafoe, who seems to keep the actor in his pocket for any art-house forays. And once again, Ferrara plumbs intensely personal depths, this latter-day habit depicted on-screen when Dafoe’s character falls down a chasm that appears in the basement of his Siberian tavern.

Clint (Willem Dafoe) tends bar and is intermittently attacked by demons—of the metaphorical variety, alas. He appears to be friends with a native (not a local Slavic Russian, but a Native native), without understanding a word of the hunter/trapper’s language. Clint also seems to know no Russian, as evidenced during a visit from a babushka, her daughter, and, indirectly, the third generation of that family: the unborn child in the daughter’s womb. This encounter is the first of a series of odd, possibly meaningful scenes involving Clint kneeling before a bare-breasted woman and then having sex with her.

Stylistically, Ferrara is a lingerer. He will keep his shot going until he’s satisfied, regardless how awkward it may make the viewer feel. There are obvious overtones of lust and fertility in the Clint/breast scenes, but they are executed in such a way that appreciation seems to morph into supplication, itself morphing into something less definable (but bordering on creepy). His gaze is not just salacious, however: it is filled with pathos. The graceful lines of Dafoe’s gaunt face shift in severity between awe and dismay and surprise, as in one moment he observes a sunrise in a subterranean lake, then witnesses a congregation of tormented ghosts in the cave, and the next moment listens to his dead father outline a fishing trip. This segment includes one of the film’s incongruous bursts of comedy as the two men (both played by Dafoe) converse: “Dad, don’t you remember what the doctor said?” asks Clint, “What was that?” responds the father. “He said you’re dead.”

There is a reliable floor to the quality of any Abel Ferrara film, going all the way back to his pseudonymously directed debut. He knows technique, form, dialogue, timing, all that. However, he’s going through a bit of a navel-gazing stage in his career. Some brief research gave no indication that Clint’s memories are the director’s own (though considering he wrote the screenplay, I have my suspicions); but regardless of whom Clint is based upon, Siberia is little more than a modestly surreal, moderately compelling, and much too cryptic slice of an old man’s mind.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This sort of visceral movie is about the experience, not the logic. Graphic nudity and violence ensure that scenes literally bleed from one to another. Along the way, the passages weave an odd and surreal continuity, with moments of quiet boredom that segue swiftly into ferocious visual jolts.” -Thomas Tunstall, Irish Film Critic (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: MONDO HOLLYWOODLAND (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Janek Ambros

FEATURING: Chris Blim, Alex Loynaz, Alyssa Sabo, Jessica Jade Andres, Ted Evans

PLOT: A being from the 5th dimension enlists the help of a purveyor of magic mushrooms and observes a cross-section of the town’s residents in an effort to define the concept of “mondo.”

Still from Mondo Hollywoodland (2019)

COMMENTS: The fabled Hollywood sign, symbol of dazzling entertainment throughout the world and physical representation of the film industry’s outsized sense of self-importance, began its existence as an advertisement. “HOLLYWOODLAND” arose in the Santa Monica mountains nearly 100 years ago to lure prospective Southern California residents to a new real estate development. The last four letters were stricken when the sign made its shift from billboard to civic symbol, and the sign enjoyed a meteoric rise to stardom.

So while the most obvious inspiration for the title of Mondo Hollywoodland would seem to be the similarly named 1967 quasi-documentary about the region’s curious subcultures, the newer film leans more into Hollywoodland’s origins as a neighborhood. The Dream Factory is ever-present in the lives of the absurd, deluded, ridiculous people chronicled here, but they are still people, and this is a movie that looks for the community among them.

Early on, when the narrator identifies himself has being from the 5th dimension (presumably not the band), we can take comfort in knowing that everything about to ensue is pretty silly. Further exemplifying the flimsy structure of this endeavor is the decision to divide Southern California society into three classes, each of which is trying to buy into the Hollywood dream despite repeatedly seeing the cracks in the façade.

We begin with the Titans, ostensibly the power brokers who make blockbuster entertainment and break the hearts of aspiring stars. And yet our focus on Ted, a perpetually coked-up mid-level executive desperately trying to bring a Disney Channel starlet to heel, reveals these masters of the universe to be puny. There is no world beyond sci-fi epics and last-minute dialogue changes for these Titans, and Ted’s triumphant fist pump (earned by completely caving in) belies his fear at losing what little power he has.

The Weirdos occupy the opposite end of the spectrum, determined to better their world and generally clueless about how to do so. Hoping to take down a Trump-allied neo-Nazi, they pass out flyers at a gun-sense rally. Meanwhile, on the artistic front, they advocate for harmony. One even mediates a conflict between two pieces of wood. They are obsessed with politics, the state of the world, and whether their empathy and good intentions are enough to bring about utopia. At least, they are when they’re not tripping. Weirdo Daphne is so disillusioned with the slow pace of change that she takes matters into her own hands, torching a car. “Hope they got the message,” she says, even though it’s doubtful if even she knows what the message might be.

Enter the Dreamers, certain that their taste of fame and fortune is just around the corner. Not surprisingly, this section of the film flirts with sadness, as all these dreams seem to be deferred. From an agent whose clients are all up for the biggest roles but never get the gig to an acting coach whose credibility derives entirely from his stint on “Mad About You” to a wannabe fitness guru who longs for even the reflected glory of training the stars. Central to this section is Anna, the granddaughter of a one-time Grace Kelly stand-in who goes on a date to a concert by the grandson of Bing Crosby. The barest glimmer of Hollywood’s allure is being pushed away by generations.

Boyle, the hapless mushroom dealer, is our connecting thread, popping in and out of stories while still carrying on his own peculiar battle against the rats hiding in his rented bungalow. Regularly high on his own product, he is frequently flummoxed by the simplest interactions, and wants only for things to be “groovy,” a condition that has eluded him since the disappearance of his cat. But he also becomes the unifying force that brings our Titan, Weirdo, and Dreamer together in a genuinely hilarious low-rent heist. They’re a marvelously motley crew, and the success of this scene as the film’s climax is a tribute to the laid-back vibe the film has cultivated.

We never learn, precisely, what “mondo” is to this crowd, but if it means anything, it’s a special kind of magic that happens when aspirations manage to outdistance reality. Mondo Hollywoodland is self-evidently a Dreamer’s enterprise (having nabbed actor James Cromwell as an executive producer, the film’s publicity spares no effort to highlight the connection), but it is determined to face down the formidable opposition of a negative world and to be, in the end, groovy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Our lead protagonist, Boyle, is a mushroom dealer, and the entire film feels like a psychedelic bender... If you’re a fan of the experimental or WTF genre, you will find a home here.” – Alan Ng, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PINOCCHIO (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Matteo Garrone

FEATURING: Federico Ielapi, , Rocco Papaleo, Massimo Ceccherini, Marine Vacth, Maria Pia Timo

PLOT: A traveling puppet show comes to his dusty town, inspiring impoverished Gepetto to make his own marionette; but the wood he uses to craft the boy is alive, and has a deep-rooted wanderlust.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Is it the slow-talking snail-form maid who’s sanguine about the trail of goo she leaves everywhere? Is it the pair of anthropomorphic swindlers, Cat and Fox? Is it that puppets seem to be their own species? Yes, and more: Matteo Garrone’s fusing of fairy tale whimsy with Southern-Italian Gothic realism is what makes Pinocchio so strange. Gepetto crafts a living, sentient son out of wood, and the most the townsfolk can muster is, “We’re happy for you, Gepetto, really, but can stop shouting about it? It’s the middle of the night.”

COMMENTS: Pinocchio‘s climax is a long shot of a boy crashing through a field of wheat, shouting enthusiastically for his father. His joy is palpable; and his many stumbles inspire a chuckle. His reunion with the much put-upon carpenter is heartwarming. And the scene takes a looong time. No storyteller relates the puppet boy’s narrative more thoroughly than Matteo Garrone, which is both a curse and a blessing. A curse because, at over two hours, Pinocchio is beyond the patience of its ideal audience; a blessing because the film gives so many wondrous characters and spectacles time to blossom.

Pinocchio’s quest is Homeric in spirit, if not quite in length—though it’s pretty darn close in that way, too. Summary: wooden puppet carved from a magical log, occasional advice proffered by a supernatural cricket, a fairy godmother figure with a pocketful of fresh chances, and much succumbing to temptation. But as in his earlier fantasy (Tale of Tales), Matteo Garrone populates Pinocchio’s world with entities both grotesque and magical. The gloriously named carnival master, Mangiafuoco (“fire eater”) is, in effect, a slave owner. His show’s intricate and well-articulated marionettes are sentient creatures, whose “strings” are merely the restraints of bondage. When a stage puppet spots Pinocchio in the audience, they marvel at his freedom, a freedom Mangiafuoco soon quashes, shanghaiing him first to be part of his act, then to be fuel for his campfire. (“I hated eating half-roasted mutton!”)

These dark entities (the lighter ones, too) inhabit a world best described as “Dust Bowl Fairy Tale.” Beneath a subduing filter, you can see the popping colors used to fill this poverty-stricken milieu. Homes, streets, even the good fairy’s country estate: everything is falling apart. Gepetto is on the cusp of beggary. He uses chisels, adzes, and all the tools of his trade to whittle away at a strange cylinder. We soon learn he is extracting the few remaining edible pieces of cheese from their desiccated wheel. The tragic villains Cat and Fox, who attempt to murder Pinocchio after robbing him, become more desperate and crippled each time we see them.

Carlo Collodi’s original story is a tragic morality tale. While Matteo Garrone scales back the tragedy (a little bit—our boy here, as I’ve spoiled, enjoys a happy ending), his movie is striped throughout with cruelty. It has morality in spades: each time Pinocchio errs—selling his school book to see the puppets; abandoning his father; and, of course, his near-fatal run-in with Mr Butterman, the too-smiling guide to the Land of Toys—he pays heavily for it. But I focus too much on the darkness. Gepetto ridiculously seeks jobs from the innkeeper by nearly breaking his tables, chairs, and door; the young fairy with her snail maid ooze old world wonderment; and Pinocchio laments to Mr. Tuna while in the belly of a giant dogfish, “But I don’t want to be digested!” Pinocchio the film is a bit of slog, but one bursting at the seams with curiosities; not unlike Pinocchio’s journey.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There is so much that Garrone’s Pinocchio appears to resemble: there’s a bit of Tod Browning’s Freaks (and a bit of Frankenstein): echoes of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and the Old and New Testament… Pinocchio is a thoroughly bizarre story; Garrone makes of it a weirdly satisfying spectacle.” -Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Anonymous, who dubbed it “”a strong Apocrypha candidate, in my opinion.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)