Tag Archives: 2021

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL CAPSULE 2021: FRANK & ZED

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DIRECTED BY: Jesse Blanchard

FEATURING: Voices of Jason Ropp, Steve Overton

PLOT: When the king’s line is severed, a demon’s curse comes to pass; meanwhile, Frank and Zed attempt to get through their days without too many pieces falling off.

Still from Frank & Zed (2021)

COMMENTS: Sometimes when you dip your hand into a swirling bucket of goo, you fish out something worth writing home about. Perhaps it’s not a traditionally worthwhile film, but there is plenty of diverting violence, clever visuals, and a suspicious amount of pathos to be found in Jesse Blanchard’s years-in-the-making fantasy puppet horror buddy comedy, Frank & Zed.

The tone is set with a puppet barbershop quartet in the opening short, “Shine.” The quad of dulcet singers croon in mighty harmony before slowly enduring a splat-stick massacre by unseen forces in the audience. The three minutes of chuckles, we are told, took two months to create; Frank & Zed took six… years. The scale of ambition behind this film boggles the mind, as does the occasional depth of feeling elicited by Blanchard and his gang of puppeteers. I was reminded often that effort of this kind translates to the screen in a way that movies made by committee—even those with exponentially larger budgets and a bevy of known actors—do not.

Frank is a (Frankenstein‘s) monster-style workaday minion, created from an unknown number of people and requiring a battery to recharge his heartbeat every day. This process allows for some of the incongruously sweet character interplay between the shambling monster and his differently shambling friend, Zed. Frank may be slowly falling apart, but Zed is in far worse way; we first meet this zombie when Frank chides him for trying to nibble on a piece of his own brain idly plucked from the large hole in his head. Watching gruesome puppet monsters with a near-wordless friendship feels odd, particularly when their interactions pull on the old heart-strings. The scene during which Frank lovingly reattaches Zed’s hand, donating some of his own reinforcing nails in the process, left me almost teary-eyed.

I shall pull no punches here, however. Frank & Zed nearly crumbles apart whenever the titular characters are not on the screen. While the pair is nailed to an adequate plot-frame, I couldn’t help but suspect that Team Blanchard would have done better keeping the film focused on the rickety duo. The Pavarotti-inspired baker was amusing as a victim, but the nearby villagers were (ironically) less fleshed out than Frank and Zed; time amongst them felt like time wasted. The gore that permeated was amusing until it went into overkill. (Possessed death-mice: good; forty minutes of puppet slicing-and-dicing, a bit less so.) Still and all, this was a great kick-off to the Fantasia 2021 festival; I find it unlikely I’ll find a sweeter friendship on display than Frank and Zed’s.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As for the inevitable Muppets comparisons, this is a darkly beautiful Fraggle Rock, a perfect exploration of a weird and wonderful world brought to live by extraordinarily talented puppeteers… But that orgy of blood is where everything gets slippy, and the charm wears thin. It shows the downside of a passion project: that there’s no one around not so personally invested that they can say ‘no.'”–Richard Whittaker, Austin Chronicle (online festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE GREEN KNIGHT (2021)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander

PLOT: King Arthur’s nephew Gawain accepts a challenge from the mysterious Green Knight to deliver a blow that will be returned to him in exactly one year.

Still from The Green Knight

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The Green Knight reconnects us with the deep weirdness of ancient legends, where even Arthur’s shiny new Christian order cannot banish the strange chthonic magics growing from the world below.

COMMENTS: We find him hungover in a brothel on Christmas morning. Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, is dissolute, only seated at the Round Table thanks to nepotism. He tells his uncle that he has no stories to tell, but when the half-tree, half-man Green Knight strides into Camelot (summoned, it seems, by witchcraft), he himself will become the tale. Since none of Arthur’s other knights will accept the oaken interloper’s proposed “game” to trade blows—delivered a year apart—with his axe, Gawain, suddenly ambitious to make a name for himself, steps forward and unwisely cleaves the Knight’s head from his trunk. This fails to deter the tree-man, who merely picks up the severed appendage and reminds Gawain of his date one year hence.

Thus begins Gawain’s quest to become a man. The knight’s code of honor Gawain aspires to demands that he keep his word and, although his resolve trembles a bit, he never seriously doubts that he will face his fate. Lowery fills out the sketchy 14th-century poem with some new incidents (which feel authentically Arthurian, like a version of the story of St. Winifred), but his main twist on the ancient legend is to make Gawain human, relatable, a man with feet of clay who nonetheless perseveres in his duty—or one who is pulled forward inexorably by his fate. As with most of The Green Knight, it’s unclear whether Gawain’s willingness to sacrifice himself is noble, or merely predestined. Contradictions abound: the pagan and the Christian exist side by side, an ancient story is told through a modern lens, and green, as Alicia Vikander reminds us in a long poetic speech, is simultaneously the color of life and of death.

There are strange things in the world which defy all logic, and Gawain experiences many of them on his journey. Heads persist separately from their bodies, women pass out magical totems and sashes, corpses hang at crossroads, giants plod along in an inexplicable parade, and a fox joins his quest (and dispenses advice). In every hut and castle along the way, Gawain encounters strange residents who may actually be ghosts, fairies, or magicians. Dreaminess overtakes our hero as he advances towards the Green Chapel, but in the end, only the clear inevitability of the axe-blow awaits. The formalist minimalism of Lowery’s A Ghost Story yields to a fiery maximalism of fantasy, but the dire existential edge remains.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A mystical and enthralling medieval coming-of-age story in which King Arthur’s overeager adult nephew learns that the world is weirder and more complicated than he ever thought possible, ‘The Green Knight’ is an intimate epic told with the self-conviction that its hero struggles to find at every turn. Stoned out of its mind and shot with a genre-tweaking mastery that should make John Boorman proud, it’s also the rare movie that knows exactly what it is, which is an even rarer movie that’s perfectly comfortable not knowing exactly what it is.”–David Ehrlich, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

CHANNEL 366: I THINK YOU SHOULD LEAVE WITH TIM ROBINSON (2019-2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Alice Mathias, Akiva Schaffer, Zach Kanin, Mike Diva, Zachary Johnson, Jeffrey Max

FEATURING: Tim Robinson

PLOT: A series of characters confront a world that does not welcome their honesty, bluntness, or failure to comprehend simple-yet-unspoken rules of social interaction.

Still from "I Think You SHould Leave with Tim Robinson" (2021)

COMMENTS: It’s hard to imagine a sketch show opening with a more fully realized statement of purpose than the one that kicks off Tim Robinson and Zach Kanin’s smorgasbord of cringe comedy. Having completed what looks to be a successful job interview in a coffee shop, a man makes his exit. However, he mistakenly pulls on a door which clearly swings out. Desperate to save face, he continues to pull, in the face of gentle correction from his interviewer and the increasing stress and strain from the effort. Ultimately, the fear of humiliation gives him the strength to break the door’s hinges, forcing it to swing inward. It’s a huge relief. Anything, anything to not be wrong.

That combination of aggressive awkwardness and interpersonal incompetence struck a nerve. Season 1 of “I Think You Should Leave,” in particular, proved to be a goldmine for viral jokes, especially in an age when our leaders seemed similarly inclined to do whatever damage was necessary in order to not be thought a fool. Meme-able highlights include a woman who fails to comprehend the subtleties of Instagram snark, a dabbing old man who derails a car focus group with absurd complaints, and a man in a hot dog costume who steadfastly refuses to acknowledge any responsibility for the wreck of his encased-meat mobile. Combined with the binge-friendly 15-minute running time of each episode, Season 2 was almost certainly inevitable.

That season has arrived, and fans of the first set of episodes will be pleased to know that Robinson’s taste for the ridiculous and the bizarre has not abated. If anything, he’s doubled-down on the bad behaviors and convention-flouting characters that made an initial splash. To be sure, some formulas are repeated: a spot urging cable viewers to demand they carry a channel devoted primarily to a funeral blooper show evokes an earlier commercial for a personal injury law firm with a very specific area of expertise. A shirt with a built-in tugging rope pairs nicely with a new garment that sells for upwards of $2,000 based entirely on its garish and increasingly complex patterns. Robinson’s fellow Detroiter Sam Richardson even returns in a new twist on his “Baby of the Year” appearance, this time hosting a misguided corporate entertainment that invites executives at a management retreat to pick the champion “Little Buff Boy” from a selection of preening pre-teen boys in muscle suits.

But new twists abound, frequently revolving around men who have reached the limits of their ability to cope with a world they don’t understand. A video explaining ear-piercing to young girls is mashed-up with a gruff old man’s lifelong regrets. A diner customer seizes on a white lie as a chance to fictionalize a life where he collects multiple versions of the same car. A devoted husband is wrecked by the betrayal of joining in his friends’ sexist jokes about their wives. Robinson himself is overcome with ennui immediately upon donning ill-fitting old makeup for a prank show. If most of the show’s characters are scorned for their refusal to follow social convention, the ones who play by the rules don’t seem any happier.

The essential elements of “I Think You Should Leave” are all in place: People behave awfully, and then blame others. They flout the rules of convention, and then forcefully reject society’s disapproval by championing themselves as bastions of freedom and justice. How dare you ask Santa Claus about his holiday gig when he’s here to promote his new action-revenge thriller? Where do you get off firing a man just because he tries to eat a hot dog hidden away in his sleeve, denies doing so, and then chokes on the link and throws up on a co-worker’s luggage? Doesn’t the recipient of a multi-million dollar personal injury award deserve a place as one of the rough-and-tumble investors on a “Shark Tank”-style show as much as some by-their bootstraps entrepreneur? Even a child’s doll lies to deflect shame. “I Think You Should Leave”’s characters are consistently awful at the job of being decent human beings, and they absolutely blame you.

Nothing may typify Robinson’s comedy more than a sketch about a haunted house tour in which the guide unwittingly trumpets the adults-only hour and encourages the guests to “say whatever you want.” Robinson’s tourist, taking the instruction literally, seizes the opportunity to bellow off-color (and seemingly unrelated) references to horse anatomy. But while the joke may end there, the sketch continues as Robinson tries with increasing despair to get it right. Ultimately, and not surprisingly, he is booted from the tour, and he leaves to the tune of a sad piano, utterly perplexed at his fate. The show’s title may reflect to message we convey to those who don’t fit in, but Robinson offers pity to all those rejects, no matter how much carnage they leave in their wake.

“I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson” streams on Netflix.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the enduring appeal of I Think You Should Leave doesn’t rest in the question of which sketches work and which don’t. It’s more about the way viewers get drawn into its bizarro universe. It’s a world plagued by comic magicians, imbalanced nacho-sharing, and an aggressive baby named Bart Harley Jarvis. In this vision of comedy, the most mundane social missteps are the principal causes of human anguish. In season 2, Robinson and Kanin stay that course, and the best bits are the ones that exploit a simple, weird concept in ways that play on the successes of the first season, but still find surprising elements.”–Brianna Zigler, Polygon (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: MOBY DOC (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Rob Gordon Bralver

FEATURING: Moby,

PLOT: A wandering, essay-style autobiographical documentary by musician Moby, who discusses his career, his alcoholism, and his veganism in a series of sketches that range from comic to philosophical.

Still from Moby Doc (2021)

COMMENTS: “I know we’ve been in a fairly conventional narrative for a while, but now we’re going to go back to being weird,” sings Moby, accompanying himself on banjo, at about the twenty minute mark. We then see him dressed as a Buddhist monk, walking down an L.A. street striking a bowl with a rod while a group in white robes and animal masks follows him. Alternating typical documentary techniques with weirdo tableaux is the method here, but while there is plenty of rambunctious imagination to the sketches, this isn’t quite the “surrealist biographical documentary” it’s pitched as. Moby Doc is not surrealist, although it contains the fleetingly surreal imagery you’d catch in any modern music video. It is, more accurately, a “collagist biographical documentary,” a story that moves logically and chronologically through Moby’s life and career, but proceeds by stitching together scraps of information cast in different styles and textures. Thus, we have Moby monologues, comic psychodramas where miscast New York actors play Moby’s parents, appreciations from David Lynch, career-spanning concert footage, staged therapy sessions, humorous one-way telephone conversations, space shuttle footage, grandiose shots of Moby standing alone atop a majestic mesa, animated bits, a -esque gag where Moby talks to Death, and a tribute to the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” video.

As someone with a casual acquaintance with Moby—a few tracks from “Play,”  downloaded on mp3 a decade after they were recorded, have made it into my rotation, and I knew virtually nothing of the artist behind them—I think this documentary may play better for people like me than for longtime fans. Rabid followers have heard all these stories before (the musician has already published two memoirs), and there’s not much new music here. The quirky presentation, tailored to a cultured rather than a mass audience, means it serves well as an introduction to those of us with a marginal interest in the musician. Well aware that he is aging out of dance floor relevance, Moby seeks to rebrand himself as an elder statesman and Serious Artist: thus, the recent concert footage of orchestral arrangements of his electronica hits.

As candid as Moby is about his hedonistic excesses—the middle section of the film is peppered with unflattering AA-styled confessions, some involving poop—critics point out that parts of his history are whitewashed or ignored (a scandal involving goes unmentioned). Such spin is to be expected in a self-funded vanity project. The bigger issue is how you respond to the narcissist paradox at the film’s core. which may determine how well you like the film (and, by extension, how well you like Moby). He begins the film by announcing he intends to explore nothing less than “the why of everything,” but then, naturally, proceeds to explore nothing more than the why of Moby. He realizes that he is addicted to fame, confessing how bad reviews and “kill yourself” troll comments wound him, and reveals that he aggrandizes his image in order to compensate for feelings of inadequacy. He wants to share universal wisdom—much of it genuine—-with the viewer, but he has enough self-awareness to realize that this mission will inevitably make him look pompous. He compensates with little self-deprecating jokes: when he talks about his music as a form of self-healing, he cuts to a reaction shot of his fake therapist stifling a yawn.

So Moby Doc ultimately becomes a lavish, 90-minute, million dollar humble brag. This could understandably rub some people the wrong way. But I relate to Moby’s dilemma: everyone has something to teach others, everyone has valuable life-lessons to share, but how can we do this without looking presumptuous and egotistical? Comic irony is the go-to strategy, and Moby deploys it as well as he can. So instead of being a recitation of rock-n-roll clichés about an artist seduced by fame, money, and pleasures of the flesh who goes through some shit and comes out the other end rededicated to his Art, Moby Doc is an obfuscational comedy: Pink Floyd the Wall with a sense of humor. And that’s not a bad thing; it’s probably as much profundity as a man who’s lifelong passion is to make music for teenagers to shake their asses to can hope to produce.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a self-portrait, an acid flashback, a therapy session, a rumination, and a surrealist music-video package all rolled into one.”–Owen Gleiberman, Variety (contemporaneous)

NORTH BEND FILM FESTIVAL 2021 FEATURES PART 2: FOUR MORE

The North Bend Film Festival runs through July 18. Online ticketing is available, but is geo-locked to residents of Washington, Oregon or Idaho. In the future, these movies may be available through alternate venues—stay tuned to this website for updates.

Cryptozoo (dir. Dash Shaw) – Of all the films available for online access at North Bend, ‘s Cryptozoo was the one that most caught my attention as a connoisseur of weird cinema. The animator/writer/director of My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea spreads his wings here with an equally absurd and fantastical, but decidedly more R-rated, take on “cryptids” (which in this case means mythological characters like gorgons, unicorns and Pegasuses more than modern legends like Bigfoot and Nessie). Set in the late 1960s, the premise is that these mutations really exist and are traded on the black market, with poorer collectors settling for alkonost feathers, while the ultra-rich enslave the critters themselves. Lauren is an agent who rescues cyptids from their captors and brings them to live at a special zoo/sanctuary run by her wealthy patron Joan. Meanwhile, the U.S. army is also in the cryptid-capturing biz, hoping to weaponize the creatures—especially the dream-eating baku (a creature also referenced Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer), an entity with whom Lauren has a special connection.

Cryptozoo (2021)I hinted that Cryptozoo is more “adult” than High School, a fact that’s immediately apparent from  the pre-title sequence, which includes both full-frontal nudity and unexpected unicorn violence. Human and cryptid players alike will spend much of the third act covered in blood. Shaw’s handmade, hand-animated style is like a series of graphic novel panels strung together, making for a choppy viewing experience that may alienate those accustomed to slick, big-budget Hollywood animation. But the compositions are eminently artistic: a sky full of new constellations, a golden-hued grazing unicorn, a naked woman standing in front of a will-o’-the-wisp light show. There isn’t one big psychedelic sequence like High School‘s drowning, but miniature hallucinations are scattered throughout, like a pink fetal head flopping out of a purple and green egg . There’s even a throwaway dream of storming the capital (only this time, the rioters are hippies bringing in an egalitarian utopia). The well-researched creature designs are fascinating, and you can expect to see most of your favorites (especially if you’re into Greek mythology), as well as many unfamiliar ones. Cryptozoo also features a top-notch collection of voiceover talent (Lake Bell, , , )—but it’s the artwork that dazzles here. Cryptozoo already has a distributor and should be released to theaters later this year—if you’re a fan of trippy animation, you should check it out.

Code Name: Nagasaki (dir. Fredrik Hana, by Fredrik Hana and Marius Continue reading NORTH BEND FILM FESTIVAL 2021 FEATURES PART 2: FOUR MORE