Tag Archives: 2021

CAPSULE: LAMB (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Valdimar Jóhannsson

FEATURING: , Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson

PLOT: A childless couple living on a remote farm in Iceland become attached to a newborn lamb.

Still from Lamb (2021)

COMMENTS: Debuting director Valdimar Jóhannsson has been adamant in interviews that Lamb is not a horror movie. While that may not be strictly accurate—Lamb abuts the supernatural, relies on ominous music cues and a bit of shocking violence, and nurtures a sense of unease throughout—the lack of intent to horrify is an important consideration to get your expectations in order.

Anyone going in expecting a stately A24 horror outing a la St. Maud (2021), The Lighthouse (2019), or Hereditary (2018) will likely grow impatient in the first forty-five minutes as the movie languorously spends its time following the slow rhythms of farm life. Maria and Ingvar, all alone except for a dog, a cat, and their livestock, spend long days grazing their sheep, preparing and eating meals (including lamb chops), and servicing their temperamental tractor. The only event that breaks up the idyllic monotony is the unexpected birth of a new lamb. After pulling the babe out of its mother, Maria gets that motherly look in her eyes. The couple take the lamb inside their home and care for the newborn like a favored pet, lavishing as much affection and attention on it as they would on an infant. The cute-as-a-button critter is usually lovingly wrapped in swaddling clothes, and it’s only when we get a brief glimpse of its lower extremities that anything resembling horror starts to take root.

Things perk up a bit after the overly-long introduction, helped by the arrival of Ingvar’s ne’er-do-well brother, who crashes at the farm and, like the audience, looks askance at the couple’s unnatural attachment to the animal. Things still proceed relatively slowly, but the viewer’s interest is held by dreamy visuals of the verdant Icelandic valley and the strangely expressive lamb (formed from a variety of techniques, including CGI composting and puppetry, into an aberration that’s simultaneously ridiculous and uncanny). The narrative is thin, but the metaphorical implications are broad; the story is driven by a likable couple’s need for something to love. (Coincidentally, displaced and delusional parental love is also a key feature of the recent Titane). It falls just short of earning a general “” tag, but for those who enjoy slow but offbeat art-house movies that focus as much on gorgeous scenery as horrific visions, Lamb may serve to fill an empty space inside of you.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a kind of WTF object of fascination… Even the (excellent) trailer from boutique studio A24 can’t find a way to entirely hide the movie’s hyper-bizarre premise.”–Taylor Antrim, Vogue (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Sion Sono

FEATURING: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Bill Mosley, Nick Cassavetes

PLOT: By order of “the Governor”, a nabbed robber must infiltrate the Ghostland to rescue the Governor’s grand-daughter.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Directed by Sion Sono, featuring Nicolas Cage.

COMMENTS: “They helped me because I am radioactive.”

This epic line is delivered, epically, by Nicolas Cage, standing atop a grand stairway beneath a massive clock, his right arm shattered, his left testicle likewise. He stands before a crowd of downtrodden souls. Amongst them is the bookish Enoch, volume of Wuthering Heights in hand, as well as the gaunt undertaker who collects souls. Watching from the periphery is Ratman and his Ratmen, a crew of thieving mechanics. Bernice, chalk-limbed and with obsidian-black eyebrows, begins a chant of rebellion. And so, the prisoners of the Ghostland rally, before marching on Samurai Town to depose the evil Governor.

Forgive me if I am telephoning in this review, but I was up until almost two o’clock this morning and arose shortly after six. Though rendering me useless for almost anything else, this primed me perfectly for Sion Sono’s latest, Prisoners of the Ghostland. Having snaked its way through the festival circuit all this past year (thank you very much, Covid, for keeping me from covering this at Fantasia…), this oddity has finally hit a handful of screens as well as pay-to-stream services. Under-slept and over-caffeinated, I watched, intermittently overcome with awe, perplexion, and hearty guffaws.

“They helped me because I am radioactive.” Even within the confines of this film, the line makes no sense. There is a permeating sense that something deeper is going on here: the growing flashbacks of a robbery gone wrong, the strange drawl-stilted speechifying by the white-suited baddie the Governor, the analogue slide show—narrated by a Greek chorus of the dregs of humanity—recounting the horrific crash between a truck full of convicts and a truck full of nuclear waste. There are moments of surreal whimsy, as when a hail of bullets cracks open a gumball dispenser, its candy-coated contents clattering in slow-motion throughout the carnage; or when Nicolas Cage’s “Hero” catches a burnt-out football helmet and busts out his gravedigger audition for Hamlet. Yes, the minds behind this story aimed for a much-too-muchness, half hitting the mark, half sputtering into the fizzly “What the?” of miscalibration.

I should be slapping the “Recommended” tag on this; I should have had my “Must See!” entreaty swatted aside by more reasonably-minded site administrators. However, as much as I enjoyed watching Prisoners of the Ghostland, it suffers from one or more of the following: too much incoherency, not enough incoherency, too much crazy, and not enough crazy. Nicolas Cage, as always, delivers; but his too much is only mostly enough. Its Sergeo Leoneciousness borders on Jodorowskity, but never quite makes the final leap. As a movie, Prisoners falls short, constituting merely a wacky, weird exercise in eccentricity and nuclear-samurai-symbolism; but in memory, I have little doubt it shall blossom into a strange patchwork of giddily campy memories of a Hero, played by Nicolas Cage, whose force of will makes me believe that he is, indeed, radioactive.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“No movie with Nicolas Cage, directed by the wonderfully weird Japanese director Sion Sono, should be this taxing, drawn out, and plainly boring…  Cage and Sono are truly kindred nutcases: they are artists who do not question themselves, and while they have a sense of humor stranger than we can comprehend, they are too sincere for irony. But ‘Prisoners of the Ghostland’ is truly just a beginning; a false start to what should, and still could be one of the greatest cinematic collaborations since sound met motion.”–Nick Allen, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EVANGELION: 3.0 + 1.0 THRICE UPON A TIME (2021)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of , Fumihiko Tachiki, , , Yuriko Yamaguchi; , John Swaney, , , Mary Faber (English dub)

PLOT: Angsty teenage Eva pilot Shinji must cope with his guilt over inadvertently causing the Third Impact, and regroup to face NERV and his own father in a final apocalyptic battle.

Stiill from Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The movie garners significant weird credentials by being only the second anime ever made about emo teenagers piloting giant robots to stave off a psychedelic apocalypse that ends by blasting its protagonist into a surreal purgatory where he wrestles with the nature of reality that’s actually a metaphor for mental illness. In this case, it’s more of a question of what might keep Thrice Upon a Time out of the Apocrypha. The answer there is more difficult, but this alternate take on a story already enshrined in the canon of weird movies does come equipped with one big negative: just to follow the basics—which is a far cry from “understanding” the film—requires you to watch (at a minimum) the three previous movies in the “rebuild series” on top of this 3.5 hour epic.

COMMENTS: Evangelion: 3.0 + 1.0 Thrice Upon a Time concludes a one-of-a-kind epic anime journey with one of the unwieldiest titles ever slapped upon a major release. The “thrice” probably refers to the series’ three different alternate endings—the TV finale, 1997’s End of Evangelion, and this one.

Is this the definitive conclusion to the story, or merely the final one? That will be a matter of taste, but 3.0 + 1.0 boasts some advantages over previous finales. For one thing, it gives more closure to the supporting characters. In previous versions, the story arcs of Eva pilot Asuka and, to some extent, antagonist Gendo were suddenly abandoned to focus on Shinji’s solipsistic hallucinations. Here, these characters play a larger role—Gendo’s motivations are explored in much greater detail—which is, in a conventional narrative sense, more satisfying. The mysterious clone Rei also follows a completely new plotline, resulting in a deeper catharsis than before, when she functioned mostly as a plot device.

Structurally, 3.0 + 1.0 is an odd duck, as Anno tries to keep his many balls juggling with one hand while tying up loose ends with the other. It starts with a four-minute rebuild recap, too brief to orient newcomers but effectively refreshing the memories of series’ followers who waited nine years between the release of 3.0 and 3.0 + 1.0. This is followed by an extended action scene where the renegades of the Wille organization, assisted by Eva pilot Mari, liberate Paris from NERV; it’s superfluous, but supplies an opportunity for an big action sequence up front, and helps to re-establish the good guys and the bad guys.

After this prologue, the movie unexpectedly turns into a post-apocalyptic drama as Shinji, Asuka and Rei shelter in a small village of survivors of the Third Impact. This hour-long, character-based story detour is unexpected, but not as disruptive as you might think. It’s a space for Anno to enact the major change to his story. Shinji still suffers from catatonic melancholia, as in previous iterations; but here, he works his way through his guilt and grief and recovers, resolving to fight against NERV by the conclusion of his stay. This revision allows him to be a vital and active participant heading into the final showdown, which in previous installments had been about the sullen teen working through the nadir of his depression. Since the protagonist’s self-loathing whininess had always been one of the major obstacles to enjoying Evangelion, this alteration will be viewed as an improvement for many. (The out-of-story explanation for this change is that Anno, who recovered from his own bout of depression decades ago, no longer identifies with the whiny, paralytic Shinji, and in fact now has more in common with Gendo, who is a far more sympathetic villain this time around.)

The last hour and a half of the movie gives fans what they came for: robot/spaceship battles, bizarre sciento-mystical musings, and eye-popping visual fireworks (and even a touch of fanservice). The Wille crew, with the three surviving Eva pilots, plunge into the bowels of NERV headquarters in a hellish descent into a bottomless red burrow, with Evas fighting off hordes of enemies as they fall. As always, Anno’s dialogue is thick with poetic-sounding nonsense. “Gendo Ikari–you used the Key of Nebuchadnezzar and willingly abandoned your humanity?,” Maya accuses. “I merely appended upon my body information that transcends the Logos of our realm,” answers the villain in a robotic deadpan. Half the dialogue here sounds like Philip K. Dick was hired to do a rewrite of the Revelation of St. John. The final action sequences are pure visual mayhem, decidedly NSFE (not safe for epileptics), with cascading pixels in a constant chaotic dance. Every space within the NERV netherworld is constantly exploding into some kind of cosmic kaleidoscope, mandala, or fractal geometry. The film does end up exploring the same surreal psychological spaces as End of Evangelion, but spends less time there, and more in a more conventional conflict between Shinjii and his father (who at one point face off in mirror-image Evas battling across imaginary landscapes).

Overall, I preferred the way End of Evangelion launched straight into the crazy from the get-go, and the peculiarity of its fascination with the unappealing Shinji. But I didn’t feel cheated by this version, and I can see how many fans might find this to be the more satisfying—and indeed ultimate—conclusion to the tale. Not for newcomers, since a four-movie commitment is almost a necessity, but for anyone who’s dipped their toes into Anno’s deranged opus before, this will rate as must see anime. It’s the true End of Evangelion, and the end of an era.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Anno opens the film with crowd-pleasing action, delves into the psychological stuff, shifts to a skirmish set beyond all planes of reality and finds yet another psychological plane beyond those planes, and it’s all bedecked by wondrously detailed and tirelessly creative psychedelic imagery. Theoretically, one could ignore the almost impenetrably dense plotting and objectively watch the film for its visuals alone, from the elegant, Ghibli-esque simplicity of its Tokyo-3 scenes to the second half’s parade of hallucinatory sequences, each one crazier than the previous.”–John Serba, Decider (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TICKLES THE CLOWN (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: BC Fourteen

FEATURING: Voices of , Jennifer Fourteen, Marco Guzman

PLOT: 2000 years in the future, the alien Illuminati have taken over Earth, and the key to defeating them lies in the DNA of an imprisoned sociopathic clown super-criminal.

Still from Tickles the Clown (2021)

COMMENTS: Tickles the Clown is notable simply because, by all rational criteria, it shouldn’t exist. A spoofy science fiction saga mocking conspiracy theories done in the style of an extremely cheap video game, it appears to come solely from the obsessive mind of one “B.C. Fourteen,” a prolific (111 writing credits) director/screenwriter who also produces work under the names “B.C. Furtney” and “Christopher Maitland.” It’s the latest installment in a four-movie-and-counting series that includes Bigfoot vs. the Illuminati, Trump vs the Illuminati, and Bigfoot vs Megalodon.

Besides the unaccountable fact that there were three previous movies in the series, two things stand out about Tickles. The first is the animation, which appears to use some video game engine modeling technology like Unreal Engine together with a stock library of motion captures. It’s clearly not hand animated; characters’ faces never change expression (for that reason, several of them are almost always depicted in helmeted spacesuits), and backgrounds are completely static. In place of expressive movements, characters sway slightly or gesticulate at random, like video game avatars awaiting entry into conversation with a player. The effect is slightly uncanny, but, at feature length, mostly tedious. One of the movie’s biggest shocks come in the credits, when you discover it took a team of eleven individuals to create this animation.

The second notable feature is the movie’s insane world-building (much of which we gather from the explanation on the back of the DVD, along with a lengthy exposition drop or two). The series is set two millennia in the future, and the Illuminati antagonists are stereotypical “grey” aliens led by a clone of , who is building some kind of Death Star and also has black magick rituals up his sleeve. Meanwhile, Big Foot—a jive-talkin’ Big Foot, no less—has joined the Rebel Alliance; a conversation with a werewolf who appears on his spaceship’s viewscreen divulges some backstory that is likely familiar to longtime viewers of the series (aw, who am I kidding?)

As for the movie… it’s mostly dull and talky, but every now and then it sparkles with some demented absurdity. The main plot has heroine Princess Kali repeatedly returning to criminal mastermind Tickles’ maximum security cell to try to convince or bribe him into giving up a blood sample (for ludicrously contrived reasons, they can’t get the genetic markers they need if the blood is taken involuntarily). Thus, most of the movie is just a drawn-out conversation between Kali and the recalcitrant-but-horny Tickles, who taunts her with his super-genius insights into her character and background (and tries to get her to show him her boobs). In other words, it’s a Silence of the Lambs rip-off plot in a Star Wars rip-off setting. But those odd touches! It starts off with a quote from Nietzsche, which is not a promising opening for an indie comedy. Every now and then, a bit of live-action stock footage—a mushroom cloud, a cup of tea, an elephant penis (!)—appears to punctuate the script’s point. There’s the relative star power of Bill Oberst, Jr., who injects a surprising malevolent life force into the perpetually grinning Tickles, laughing maniacally and generally playing the role like a potty-mouthed Saturday morning cartoon villain hopped up on too much sugary cereal. Big Foot is cringily voiced as an African American (he even says “word!” at one point). There are numerous plot holes, including the fact that Tickles’ big escape from a maximum security galactic jail is completely unexplained in-movie (the box cover clarifies the situation, albeit with a typo, although to be fair it also describes a completely different plot than the one in the movie).

Tickles the Clown is intended as a comedy, although it’s not very funny. It often plays as a comedy of errors, though one not funny enough for the so-bad-it’s-good crowd. By all accounts, it’s not any better or worse than the previous three entries in the series. Even as cheaply produced as these movies are, given the spotty distribution—Tickles is only available on DVD, one of the previous three movies is on Amazon Prime, but not the rest— it’s hard to believe they are making enough money to justify hiring Bill Oberst for voiceover.  Forget the question of whether the psychopathic clown and the alien Aleister Crowley clone will team up to defeat Big Foot and the generic space rebels, the big mystery posed by the Illuminati series is: how are these obscure movies continuing to get made, in the face of the world’s utter indifference?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The series is pretty wild for the most part but what could be something very fun and memorable has been a tough chore to finish…  It’s one of the most difficult films [in the series] to watch and I was not a fan. Skip it.”–“Blacktooth,” Horror Society (contemporaneous)