Tag Archives: 2020

CAPSULE: NEVER GONNA SNOW AGAIN (2020)

Sniegu juz nigdy nie bedzie

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DIRECTED BY: Malgorzata Szumowska, Michal Englert

FEATURING: Alec Utgoff, Maja Ostaszewska, Agata Kulesza, Weronika Rosati, Katarzyna Figura, Lukasz Simlat, Krzysztof Czeczot, Andrzej Chyra

PLOT: Residents of a gated community in Poland believe a mysterious Ukrainian masseur has special powers.

Still from Never Gonna Snow Again (2020)

COMMENTS: Mystery masseur Zhenia was born in Pripyat, the closest town to Chernobyl, seven years before the reactor melted down and exploded. That event was in 1986, which means that Zhenia was born in 1979. Stalker was released in 1979.

Of course, those dates could be coincidences, but its worth mentioning that later Never Gonna Snow Again will directly quote a scene from Stalker, and the ghost of (alongside Pier Paolo Pasolini, by way of Teorema) haunts the production. This movie is thick with allusions, feints, and mysterious possible connections that never quite cohere. The premise is simple enough: Zhenia begins peddling his massage services to residents of a wealthy Polish gated community. Everyone feels incredible and energized after a session, and the neighborhood comes to believe his hands have extraordinary healing powers. It also turns out that he is a gifted amateur hypnotist whose techniques can give their psyches the equivalent of a deep tissue massage. He becomes a central figure in the lives of a number of the families living in this tract of luxurious but nearly identical suburban homes, most notably an alcoholic woman, a man fighting cancer, an aging bohemian and her drug-chemist son, a woman obsessed with her three dogs, and an ex-soldier with a nasty temper.

This setup gives Never Gonna Snow Again ample space to explore many possible avenues, from the social to the personal to the existential. It’s a movie that begs for an allegorical interpretation, but I’m not sure it plays fair with the audience on that count. The story leaves a lot of loose thematic ends, with no hints on how to correctly tie them up. Is it a parable about immigrants? A social satire of the new Polish bourgeoisie? An environmental warning? A Christ allegory? Is the story actually about Zhenia’s childhood? Why the Stalker references? Why do the children believe it will never snow again? Why do the neighbors feel better after meeting with Zhenia, even though their lives don’t materially improve? What’s the meaning of Zhenia’s relationship with dogs? Why does Zhenia speak fluent Vietnamese?

That’s just a small sample of the movie’s unanswered questions. Ambiguity is a tricky thing. Wielded well, it can produce powerful intellectual and emotional effects. But a little bit can go a long way, and loose ends are easier to deal with if there is at least one strong central idea to latch onto. When nothing links up, you are left only to appreciate the aesthetics; a hit-or-miss affair that depends on your subjective preferences. Never Gonna Snow Again impressed art-house critics, which is why it has a 94% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes and will be Poland’s submission to this year’s Oscars. Many praised Alec Utgoff‘s performance, but I found him pleasantly bland, lacking the supernatural presence brought to Teorema (a tall order, admittedly, but almost a necessary element for a fable like this to work). The cinematography and sound design are outstanding, but they’re only pieces of the puzzle. You need to be attuned to slow cinema and the subtler shades of weirdness to fall for this one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Desire and delirium in Eastern Europe, with an undertow of eco-anxiety, make for a bizarre hybrid, somewhere between Twin Peaks and Pasolini’s Theorem…heads all the way into the territory of surreal satire to eerie and intriguing effect.”–Jonathan Romney, Screen Daily (festival review)

CAPSULE: MANDIBLES (2020)

Mandibules

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , David Marsais, Adèle Exarchopoulos

PLOT: Two dimwitted thugs think they’ve struck it rich when they find a giant fly in the trunk of their stolen car.

Still from Mandibles [Mandibules] (2020)

COMMENTS: The shaggy-fly comedy Mandibles showcases the more accessible side of Quentin Dupieux; it’s getting the widest American release of any of his film’s since Rubber (2010), and his best notices from mainstream viewers and reviewers. While 2018’s Keep an Eye Out was a nonstop assault of ian jokes and experiments, Mandibles (like 2019’s Deerskin) restricts itself to only a couple of deadpan absurdist premises (the giant fly being, naturally, the main one). It’s an olive branch for those who believe that, when it comes to weird, less is more.

Mandibles starts when Manu, homeless and sleeping on the beach and looking like a French version of the Dude, gets a hush-hush commission to deliver a mysterious suitcase, no questions asked, for 500 Euros. (As this is a Dupieux film, you can be sure the valise will not contain a kilo of heroin, stolen diamonds, or plans for an Iranian nuclear reactor.) Manu invites buddy Jean-Gab along on the low-key caper, but complications immediately arise when they find that the trunk of their stolen car houses an enormous fly. Jean-Gab, the marginally brighter of the two, hatches the idea to train the flying pest as an assistant for their criminal careers. The suitcase is temporarily forgotten as the two buffoonish thugs seek to enact their plan, overcoming small-scale obstacles (accidentally locked trunks, fires, car problems) as they try to avoid tripping over their own feet.  Manu’s efforts go to scrounging up food and lodging, while Jean-Gab spends his time training the fly he’s named Dominique. Through a crazy coincidence, their picaresque adventures eventually land them at a country villa where they meet a suspicious Adèle Exarchopoulos, who threatens to uncover their subterfuge—despite suffering from a novel neurological problem (the movie’s second big surreal joke).

It’s the friendship between Manu and Jean-Gab, rather than the fly’s antics, that carries the movie. These two dopes have a bit of a Bill and Ted dynamic (with their “toro” handshake subbing for the California dudes’ air guitar salutation). Their criminality is opportunistic rather than mean-spirited; in real-life, their poorly conceived scams would quickly land them in prison, but in the movie’s world they’re able to abduct people and steal property without serious repercussions. They never get anywhere; perpetual victims of their own stupidity, they have a tendency accidentally destroy all their ill-gotten gains. Their simplicity and unswerving loyalty to each other leads the audience to root for them despite their boorish behavior, however, and you even see how their insect companion could get attached to them. Meanwhile, their escapades provide just enough unpredictability and amusement to carry the slight narrative through its brisk 75-minute runtime.

Is Grégoire Ludig becoming Dupieux’s leading man of choice? He’s unrecognizable here from his turn in Keep an Eye Out, and he even shows up here briefly in a second role—again unrecognizable. He’s got a chameleonic presence and good comic timing, two things a Dupieux film can always use.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s not Dupieux’s best work, but there are enough laughs and head-shaking moments to make ‘Mandibles’ an entertaining jaunt into weirdosville.”–Carla Hay, Culture Mix (contemporaneous)

FANTASIA FESTIVAL 2021: TIN CAN (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Seth A. Smith

FEATURING: Anna Hopkins, Simon Mutabazi, Michael Ironside

PLOT: A parasitologist is abducted after discovering a treatment for a spore-fueled pandemic and awakens inside a life-support canister.

COMMENTS: It was disorienting for me to endure so many of my personal phobias on parade while still remaining committed to finding out how this shuddersome chain of events concluded. Tin Can has plenty of its titular containers: a third of the action takes place inside an icky-liquid-filled cylinder inhabited by Fret, the film’s slime-expert heroine. As she could barely move, practically fused with her surroundings, a sympathetic jab of claustrophobia struck me . And then there’s the disease-y plot device, which on more than one occasion had me glancing away.

There’s a lot of terrible going on in the world now, what with some fungus-based communicable horrificness passing from person to person with greater ease than I would have thought likely just a year ago. So Tin Can feels topical, while still maintaining a futuristic edge. A suffused lighting scheme heightens the clinical spaces, working equally well with the sinister basements of some unnamed facility. Smith opts for a narrow aspect ratio, heightening the sense of constriction, trapping the viewer in its column just as the visuals push you to the edges.

The sound design is also impressive, with plenty of muffled conversations between occupants of the “tin cans”, and all manner of sinister clanks and squoodges as unknown unpleasantness happens beyond the scope of their air vents. Only one character seems remotely pleased at every juncture, a wiry old man named Wayne (Michael Ironside) who seems to have embraced the prospect of being a harbinger some decades prior. The other characters, well, they love, they lie, they… They have a lot of flashback encounters beneath (what I swear) is the same underpass over and over. Come to think of it, Smith not only overcame my personal discomforts with the themes, he also overcame the fact that he only had one interesting character…

Marred though it is by disorienting plot jumps and flat performances (except, of course, Ironside’s giddy eccentric), Tin Can works when viewed as a philosophical essay. Its sounds and visuals—the gold-toned future drones, the dungeon cylinder repository, and the squiggling gyrations of a fungal chrysalis just before it’s crushed—are strong enough to carry us past the ho-hum human element. And Tin Can‘s themes of transformation, deception, and hope are tried and true. The Waynes of the world, with their manic optimism in the face of doom, are as necessary as the hard-nosed, hard-science heroine Fret. Without Fret, we cannot achieve, and without Wayne, we cannot believe.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Smith goes big on the visuals, both inside and outside the can… there is work that evokes Andrey Tarkovsky and Marek Piestrak. It’s splendidly realised and atmospheric, which is important because in later, slower scenes, Smith relies on it to maintain a sense of awe when the actors are compromised in their ability to hold our attention.” -Jennie Kermode, Eye for Film (festival screening)

CAPSULE: THE WANTING MARE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Nicholas Ashe Bateman

FEATURING: Jordan Monaghan, Josh Clark, Edmond Cofie, Christine Kellogg-Darrin, Nicholas Ashe Bateman

PLOT: Moira, the latest in a matrilineal line, suffers the nightly dream of a hopeful yesterday while enduring the desperate circumstances of her dystopian milieu.

COMMENTS: Imagine yourself outside, idly contemplating the setting sun. You are about to arise to go and do something—anything—when an insect lands on your forearm and begins crawling around. The next thing you know, you’ve been observing it for the better part of ninety minutes, intermittently enthralled by some detail, but mostly in a trance-like state as arm and insect come in and out of focus. Suddenly the insect flies off, heading over the horizon as you gaze placidly in the direction of its escape. So it was with this reviewer and The Wanting Mare.

Moira lives a life of wistful ennui in a rustic hipster’s paradise. Her home is well-worn but soundly constructed. It’s not in the city, but within easy walking distance. And it overlooks a beautiful stretch of coast. Her days are spent milling about, in the house or on the beach, and her nights are spent in town, in the basement of a derelict building. Deep-blue mood bulbs are strung around what was once a dance floor, and a superannuated eight-track player blasts out a live recording of a singer who we eventually learn was Moira’s mother. Moira does not like sleeping, because she always has the same dream.

Nicholas Ashe Bateman (whose full name always showed up wherever I read of him online, so I shall extend this courtesy—up to a point) tips the viewer off right from the start. The film’s opening line, spoken by a dying mother to her infant daughter, is “You’re gonna have a dream.” So will the audience. If “smash cut” refers to scattershot sequences of violence in action movies, then I shall dub whatever NAB is up to “drizzle cut.” Despite concrete scenes of action (mostly dialogue), The Wanting Mare primarily drips micro-scenes together in montages of hypnagogic (a word I looked up exclusively for this sentence) smears of images. Movement along a beach. Swaying to some music. Even the handful of scenes featuring amateur bullet extraction have a lazy, semi-shaky effect.

I’m something of an idiot when in the act of watching a movie, so it took me until the final scene to realize that this story was a parable. I had already begun to forgive the filmmaker for the shambling first half, and this new awareness effectively cleared the faults I had been stacking in my mind. The Wanting Mare‘s plot device is a promise of leaving on a ship that departs this city once a year, a voyage for which you need a white ticket. Time and again, key characters forego an opportunity to escape to a mystical land of horses and winter, in order to live their lives as best they can, and change their world for the better. It took awhile to get there, and I risked falling asleep at times, but when that insect on my arm flew off at the end, I kind of missed it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a gorgeous effort, poetic and somber and dreamlike. But it lacks a central voice, and without that, any real connection with the audience.” -Hope Madden, UK Film Review (contemporaneous)