Tag Archives: 2021

SLAMDANCE 2021: THE SHORT BIGS COMPENDIUM

The collection of short reviews for longer, less-weird films.

Slamdance’s entire slate, shorts and features, can be watched online through February 25 for a $10 pass, $5 for students.

Hurrah, We Are Still Alive! (Hura, wciaz zyjemy!; dir. Agnieszka Polska)—Troupe of film actors is adrift and its mysterious director is mysteriously missing and…yawnnnnn. Mm, excuse me. The only way I could potentially pitch this high mumble-drama as exciting would be to provide a couple of out of context remarks like, “Dirk picks up a cat and walks through a cowboy gauntlet”, or “Dirk threatens an exotic fish.” This is the kind of movie that gets a super-solid 5/10, because it is technically well made, technically tells a story, and was technically watchable all the way through. It features pseudo-mysterious plottings, a terrorist organization, an actress with a wig that’s more boyish than her slightly less-boyish actual hairstyle, a semi-charismatic hitman, and, exotic for a New York viewer, smoking inside a disco. (This club, however, is one of the saddest party places I’ve ever seen.) It probably didn’t help that the film burns out its only energy with the exclamation mark in the title.

The Little Broomstick Rider (dir. Matteo Bernardini)—For those of you who want to experience the simple-sophisticated joys of “gekkimation” but don’t want to endure the stomach-turning creativity of more graphic fare, I highly recommend Bernardini’s charming yarn about a 9-year-old boy accused of witchcraft in early 17th-century Bavaria. Darling and detailed drawings for characters and settings, snappy and silly signs for dialogue and exposition, and flute and fife for a rousing soundtrack. Unlike myself, Matteo Bernardini did something productive during his Covid quarantine. (Not to insult my profession, mind you; but one of the perks of being a reviewer is you get a front-row view of talented people. [Not that reviewers aren’t talented people, just… ah, to heck with it. Watch The Little Broomstick Rider!].)

Taipei Suicide Story (安眠旅舍; dir. KEFF)—Well, this was probably the saddest romantic comedy I’ve ever seen, though at least the title prepared me for it. In the greater Taipei area, sometime now-ish, is a discreet little hotel where the guests are allowed only one night’s stay. This typically isn’t problematic, as the facility specializes in giving people a place (and limited assistance) to kill themselves. Zhi-Hao is a young man, and world-weary, which is something to be expected of a concierge at a Continue reading SLAMDANCE 2021: THE SHORT BIGS COMPENDIUM

SLAMDANCE 2021: APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MAN UNDER TABLE (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Noel David Taylor

FEATURING: Noel David Taylor, John Edmund Parcher, Ben Babbitt, Katy Fullan

PLOT: A nameless screenwriter tries to write a movie (the movie we’re watching), while his peers’ careers seem to be taking off faster than his.

Still from Man Under Table (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This microbudget meta-movie about a nameless screenwriter unabashedly gazes at its navel until that navel becomes a self-contained universe teeming with surrealism and satire.

COMMENTS: Ever since 8 1/2, directors have been making movies about the trials and tribulations of being themselves making a movie. It’s an ambitious undertaking, fraught with pretension, but the subgenre is not tapped out yet. Man Under Table relocates the conceit to a new milieu: the fringes of the indie movie scene, a world which itself exists on the fringes of Hollywood. It’s a purgatory for creatives. Everybody urgently wants rush out a movie about “identity politics” or “fracking” or, preferably, the intersection of the two—but they actually spend most of their time in bars, at parties, or in men’s rooms, talking about their hopefully soon-in-development projects. The film doesn’t really have much of an idea how to end itself, and it plays around with some intriguing possible plot angles (such as the suggestion that another character is the real author of the screenplay) only to abandon them. But that abandonment itself is both a meta-joke and an honest reflection of the script: the movie consistently, from being to end, does not know what it is, and it is all about its own lack of insight.

Such a premise would be insufferable if played straight; it can only work as a comedy. And Man Under Table has a nasty comic bite, with the movie itself, and its screenwriter, as much the target of the satire as the phonies who hang out in this plague-ridden alternate Los Angeles. Our nameless (itself a plot point) antihero is writing a movie, but he spends most of his free time bragging to all his acquaintances about how he’s writing a movie. He’s arrogant, short-tempered, neurotic, presumptuous, whiny, and obviously angry at himself but taking it out on everyone around him. His targets include screenwriting rival Ben (who looks a lot like David Foster Wallace stripped of his bandana), up-and-coming director Jill Custard, a vapid but omnipresent YouTuber, and a pair of buzzword-devouring—producers? Agents? He’s also taking advantage of Gerald, an older man with money who has an idea for a movie but needs help with the “technical part” (i.e., writing it), and who insists that there shouldn’t be any of that “modern movie gay stuff.”  You personally don’t know any characters like this, and characters like this could in fact never exist, yet you believe they are caricatures of real people—or at least, that they’re caricatures of real caricatures.

Man Under Table plays out on minimal sets—a bathroom, a barroom, an apartment, a warehouse, a blank void—and moves from scene to scene with little flow or causality. The order of incidents could be shuffled about without making much difference; it’s set in a netherworld of eternal project development. “This isn’t a movie, it’s just random scenes about some guy,” our screenwriter complains midway through. At one point, he finds himself unwittingly cast in—and cut from—someone else’s project, which breaks out around him as he’s trying to order a beer. The movie also draws attention to its own movieness by introducing deliberate continuity errors (a disappearing drink becomes a running gag).

Where Man Under Table shines, and sometimes becomes laugh-out-loud funny, is in writer/director Taylor’s charmingly obnoxious performance as his own alter-ego, and especially in his ear for cutting dialogue that exposes the shallow ambitions of his characters. His generic pitches to the movie-producing couple are brilliant (he throws the word “content” in at random and their eyes get huge). A parody of a competitor’s production shows a knack for capturing ridiculously poetic indie dialogue (“I always imagined that leaving prison was like being ripped from the womb all over again—you emerge screaming, wet, and pale.”) Other great lines include “I didn’t really want to talk about it either, I was just asking you questions I wanted you to ask me” and “I’d like to be suicidal again, but I can’t even get there with all the garbage you’re saying.” Some of the dialogue even achieves poignancy: “Sometimes I get excited about all the possibilities there are, until I realize none of them are available to me.”

As boorish and self-absorbed as our hero is, you gradually begin to feel for him. He is trapped in an absurd, dystopian world peopled entirely by poseurs, a universe that seemingly exists only to crush his dreams. Oh yeah, and then there’s all the weird stuff that happens to his character in the movie, too.

Man Under Table is currently playing Slamdance (online).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This film is definitely weird.”–Lorry Kitka, Film Threat

SLAMDANCE 2021: APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: NO TRACE (2021)

Nulle trace

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DIRECTED BY: Simon Lavoie

FEATURING: Monique Gosselin, Nathalie Doummar

PLOT: After a smuggler escorts a woman and infant across the border, her draisine is stolen; she encounters the woman she smuggled on her trek back north.

Still from No Trace (2021)

COMMENTS: If Andrei Tarkovsky had made a film about a human smuggler in a post-civilization world, it would look (and feel and sound) like Simon Lavoie’s No Trace. The mystical energy of Canadian wildlands is punctured only by a pair of iron rails as our nameless protagonist navigates her track-bound wagon through the soft palette of black and white trees and scrub. Religion and doubt vie for dominance. And soft aural cues warn of danger. As with the journey into the heart of “the Zone“, metaphysicality in No Trace flourishes the farther our hero travels from her anchor to civilization.

What little civilization She (Monique Gosselin) comes from is made abundantly clear at the start. There is no state, just men with guns. But men with guns are often open to bribes, and so She has a living. Her latest job is transporting a young mother (Nathalie Doummar, credited as “Awa,” though I do not recall her name ever mentioned) and an infant girl across a border whose demarcation is all too unclear. The smuggler’s vehicle breaks down after She receives another assignment, and She is forced to hide in the wilds near the rails. Awa is there. And, in a tragic way, so are her daughter and husband.

No Trace‘s strangeness is carried primarily by its steady drip-drip-drip of unlikely filmic characteristics. The score is spartan, but when the “doom western” chords swell and plang, it’s all the more powerful for it. I’m at a loss for another example in which the primary musical cues climax after a fade to black. The black and white cinematography is as beautiful as the world is bleak, with soft greys highlighting the lush variance of the ever-present forest. And the dialogue, scarcely present in the first half (maybe half-a-dozen brief lines), merely elucidates what little exposition that isn’t made clear in the image.

The subtlety of the action and the actors further renders No Trace a contemplative picture. The slightest raising of the smuggler’s hand in a key scene resonates far more than any flailing histrionics or wild gyrations could. This and the surrounding quietude scream Tarkovsky, yes, but it’s the film’s climax that swerves No Trace into spiritual wonderment. Awa and the smuggler are in a ragged shack, and Awa— a devout Muslim—asks the smuggler, “You are not a believer?,” to which the smuggler coldly replies, “I’m not that desperate yet.” The closing scene, with Awa embraced by leaves and the smuggler embraced by her precious railway, culminates in a theological twist worthy of the late Russian master.

No Trace is currently playing Slamdance (online).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By stripping away artifice and taking a surrealist route and view, Lavoie ponders what lies beyond what we think we know, about an uncertain and obscure future.”–Shelagh Rowan-Legg, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

CHANNEL 366: WANDAVISION (2021)

DIRECTED BY: Matt Shakman

FEATURING: Elizabeth Olsen, , Kathryn Hahn, , Randall Park,

PLOT: Sorceress Wanda Maximoff and her husband, the strong and flight-capable synthezoid Vision, settle down in the idyllic burg of Westview. However, their peace and comfort are regularly disrupted by nosy neighbors who are constantly seconds away from discovering their secret, outside forces threatening their safety, and the fact that their reality is constantly changing to reflect the evolution of the American situation comedy over several decades.

Still from WandaVision,(2021)

 COMMENTS: For their debut on the Disney+ streaming service, the bigwigs at Marvel Studios bypass their usual flights-and-punches formula in favor of parody, satire, and psychological paranoia. “WandaVision” turns the mystery of what is happening to our protagonists on its head by filtering the drama through the pastiche of laugh-tracked comical antics. So it’s not quite what you might expect from the box office wizards at Marvel. On the other hand, it’s still mainstream entertainment, and the patient will soon be rewarded with explanations for all that transpires.

When last seen on the big screen, Wanda Maximoff (AKA Scarlet Witch) was doing battle with purple mega-Malthusian Thanos, while Vision was dead at selfsame villain’s hands. For those who have diligently followed the Marvel Cinematic Universe through 24-or-so big screen adventures, the sight of the pair crossing the threshold as (1) married, (2) very much alive, and (3) stepping onto the set of an ersatz “Dick van Dyke Show” must surely provoke a cocked eyebrow.

But if you’ve been paying any attention at all, you’ve noticed that part of Marvel’s success has derived from its willingness to borrow beats and tropes from other genres to keep the overall superhero vibe fresh. You’re as likely to get touches of 70s paranoid thriller (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as you are an 80s macho-buddy flick (Thor: Ragnarok). Sometimes the films even shift tone within their own running time (see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s lurch from heist comedy to haunted requiem). So the left-turn into sitcom territory is not totally off-brand.

Considering that they’ve been reduced to mere cameos amidst the cinematic cavalcade of superheroes, Olsen and Bettany seem to relish finally getting the spotlight to themselves for a little bit. Their chemistry, teased out in stolen moments in the big-screen omnibus, is genuine, and if their transformation into broad comedians still feels awkward, it’s not for lack of trying. The same Vision who triumphantly hoisted Thor’s hammer in the cinema is here reduced to belting out “Yakety Yak” as a wild distraction—but the spirit says to just go with it.

That’s surely why “WandaVision” is on our radar. It feels wrong. These characters shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing, these comedic styles should not be on our TV screens in the 21st century, and for three episodes, the show resolutely refuses to explain just what the heck is going on. Of course, this puzzle box is part of what draws viewers here in the first place. Something strange is going on is Heroville, and we’re gonna try and figure out what.

And sure enough, episode 4 begins to unpack the mystery, as agents from the “real world” try to understand the mysterious goings-on. It’s hardly a coincidence that FBI agent Jimmy Woo is scribbling down the very questions that are in our own heads: “Why hexagonal shape? Why sitcoms? Same time & space? Is Vision alive?” For any viewers shaking their heads and despairing at the many unanswered questions, the plot cops are here to sort things out.

“WandaVision” represents an interesting attempt to incorporate some different flavors into the Marvel mix. Director Shakman and creator Jac Schaeffer fully commit to their odd premise, with credit sequences, theme songs, and commercial breaks to match each new setting. (In particular, episode 5 ends in a wild twist that manages to riff on sitcom tropes and inside-baseball Hollywood at the same time.) In other words, it’s weird and it knows it. But the show also wants to reassure you that everything’s going to make sense in the end; it’s weird for a reason. When you’re a multibillion dollar content factory, you probably don’t want to leave that kind of thing to chance.

Roger Ebert famously summarized the shortcomings of 2010, the belated sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, by quoting the verse of e. e. cummings: “I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing / than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance”. Similarly, “WandaVision” soars when gleefully vivisecting expectations for a comic book adventure series, but the needs of the franchise, and the demands of mainstream entertainment, keep it firmly tethered to the ground.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The best parts of the first three episodes are when WandaVision unapologetically leans into its weirdness… the more unexplained moments the show throws at us, and the more it pushes up against what feels like horror, the more it allows the sitcom device to really hammer home its uncanny artificiality. The result is that the sitcom beats feel even stranger, maybe even more menacing — in a way that goes beyond “these characters sure are acting unnaturally.” It makes you realize the intense desperation for these characters to be “normal,” and the tragedy that “normal” is the one thing they’ll never be able to be. When the characters sink back into their comedic shtick, then, it feels even more unnerving.” – Alex Abad-Santos, Vox