Tag Archives: Anthology

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: COUNTRY OF HOTELS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Julio Maria Martino

FEATURING: Adam Leese, Siobhan Hewlett, Matthew Leitch, Michael Lawrence, Charles Pike, Ben Shafik, Sabrina Faroldi, Mia Soteriou

PLOT: Strange fates await the tenants of room 508 of an unnamed hotel in Palatine, Illinois.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: This film’s unsettling aura lingers in the mind like stale cigarette smoke in a shabby hotel room. Three vignettes are showcased in the fifth-floor room of one of those Lynchian establishments found on the outskirts of Somewhere, USA. The staff are friendly enough, but beware the ever-morphing wall art.

COMMENTS: Duplicity, madness, and haziness linger beyond the portal in Country of Hotels. From within, above, and through its peephole, room 508 allows a glance into some very private, and pleasantly disconcerting, vignettes. The hotel’s staff provide not only room cleaning and story-framing services, they punctuate each morality tale with what I can best describe as fairy tale justice.

Each scenario shows the surface of what’s going on, but never what’s really going on. In the first, it’s obvious that Roger and Brenda shouldn’t be screwing each other: Roger’s married, and Brenda is his wife’s best friend. But who’s messing with the room electronics? How did Roger’s blabbermouth coworker also end up in this nowhere hotel that same day? And why can Roger watch himself making love? Subsequently, we see why Pauly’s on the verge of collapse: he’s always sent on stupid assignments because he’s smart, and he burns through calories at a medically alarming rate. But for what audience is he recording his addled videos? What voice is tormenting him nightly via the air-conditioning duct? And why is he so itchy? And finally, Derek is drunk as hell after a rock show, awaiting Brenda; Vic the photographer, replete with bolo tie and comb-over, and greased in lies and grievance, comes asking after her. But how long has Derek been here? What’s Vic’s actual relationship with Brenda? And how did that stuffed animal panda travel from the hotel room into the TV broadcast?

Of the many questions that pop up, the most mysterious—and most satisfying—is, what is up with that painting? It hangs on the wall, innocuous. Another “warehouse print,” as Pauly bitches to his laptop camera. It changes subtly after each visitor’s departure, moving the gravedigging figure that looks remarkably similar to Sammy, the hotel handyman. He’s an immigrant with an unspecified accent, and is perhaps related to the unflappable hostess who commands the lobby; the Stetson-topped patriarch who never rises from his wheelchair; and the flinchingly obsequious chamber maid. Their relationship with room 508 is one of understanding if not comprehension; they have a notion of its doings, but appear to be little more than passive facilitators of its nebulous whims.

Country of Hotels nails the look as well as the stories, a look ripped from over half a century ago—further back, if you include the room’s pastoral artwork. Disorienting geometry glazes 508’s walls with headache-inducing tessellation. When the bulbs aren’t flickering, the lights are always too bright. And the muted palette pairs nicely with the languidly loping score, transmuting a potentially sing-song tedium into an icky sub-natural space like you might find in a latter-day Hotel Earle. This is an uncomfortable movie peopled by sorry examples of humanity and supported by a stolid band of genial foreigners. The staff provide the film’s comic relief, pathos, and its most important moral: we are all just guests here, and it would do us well to bear that in mind.

Country of Hotels is currently on the festival circuit and will be showing up next at the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival (May 7-15, exact date of screening not known at time of publication). We’ll keep you advised of future availability. Also see our interview with director Julio Maria Martino and writer David Hauptschein.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Anyone who associates low-budget horror purely with cheap slasher films will be profoundly surprised by how ambitious and weird Country of Hotels is. It’s the work of people who are using their below-the-radar status to take serious chances. It also punches above its weight technically, thanks to Slocovich’s slick, moody cinematography and a fabulous score by Christos Fanaras, which ably carries the movie through its slower patches.”–Graham Williamson, Horrified (festival review)

CAPSULE: GENIUS PARTY (2007)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Hideki Futamura, Yuji Fukuyama, Shoji Kawamori, Shinji Kimura, , Masaaki Yuasa

FEATURING: Various voice actors

PLOT: Six short animated films from different directors associated with Japan’s Studio 4ºC.

COMMENTS: There’s no better way to enjoy the Christmas/Saint Stephen’s/Saint John’s/Holy Innocent’s holiday run than to nestle back with coffee and cartoons, so I kicked up my heels and dove deep into a very fine collection of anime wonderments (as well as a mixed metaphor). Each entry in this 2007 anthology gets its own paragraph.

“Shanghai Dragon” – dir. by Shoji Kawamori

Somehow the fate of humanity rests in the snot-covered hands of 5-year-old Gonglong when a mysterious, magical piece of chalk is crash-delivered to his schoolyard. “Shanghai Dragon” playfully riffs on the Terminator premise, showcasing the likely whimsicality if mankind’s savior were a very, very young boy. Kawamori’s short is, in a way, straight-up action anime, including a cybernetically enhanced, cigar-smoking badass; killer robots; hundreds of explosions; and a giant AI-controlled dog robot. But it’s also one of the cutest cartoons I have ever seen.

“Deathtic 4” – dir.  Shinji Kimura

Four young school friends plot to save a (live) frog that was somehow transported to their (zombie) planet by the hazardous Uzu-Uzu weather event. While “Shanghai Dragon” was cute, “Deathtic 4” (presumably the planet’s name) is one of the ickier cartoons I’ve seen—but it still immolated me in a fire-wall of charm. The quartet inhabits a sicklier variant of ‘s “Halloween Town“, and are all losers (despite three of them claiming “super powers”). The Zombie Police discover the living froggy, they sound the alarm–via a detachable siren nose that turns out to be one of those “moooo” canisters. The lads then flee toward the MASSIVE cyclone, Uzu-Uzu, with a plan ripped from a Garbage Pail Kids’ E.T.

“Doorbell” – dir. by Yuji Fukuyama

Fukuyama’s short is by far and away the most cryptic of the bunch, but that isn’t what made it my least favorite—or maybe it is. My suspicion is the director is attempting a philosophical exercise concerning infinite realities, all variants centered around one focal point: in “Doorbell”s case, that of a young man whose versions of himself keep splitting off and cutting him off from future paths. Neat, and pleasantly understated—and as such, feels a little out of place here.

“Limit Cycle” – dir. by Hideki Futamura

Playing like a cyber-theological TED talk, Futamura’s short lacks narrative and characters, but is the most fascinating entry. Its layered visuals, which combine classic animation, computer animation along with symbolic numbers, images, and math, are lush and hypnotic—prompting me to sorely regret my lack of fluency in Japanese, as my eyes had to stay anchored to the persistent subtitles to have any grasp of what was going on. Beautiful to behold while raising many profound philosophical points.

“Happy Machine” – dir. by Masaaki Yuasa

Humanistic allegory meets wacky animation in this short. The story begins with a happy infant (whimsical mobile above his bed, toys lining shelves, loving mother approaching to feed him) whose reality is sucked away, forcing him on a strange journey through a wasteland. Animation itself is deconstructed as its artifice collapses along with the infant’s home—and that’s just one of the dozen or so dissections of life, etc., that Yuasa performs with his singular ‘tooning style.

“Baby Blue” – dir. by Shinichiro Watanabe

Boy is going to be moving away from his school–and his girl-crush–and so suggests that he and she cut class and head out. To anywhere. Those seeking a melancholic musing on maturation may find this quite satisfying. While it lacks the temporal/scientific/divine themes of its fellow entries, I wasn’t unhappy about its inclusion, particularly the scene where the boy busts out a grenade (acquired, against the odds, in a wholly believable manner) to fend off a gaggle of ’50s throwback goons.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the average level of quality is staggeringly high… If you have any love for animation as a medium of art, I cannot recommend this collection enough.”–Ard Vijn, Screen Anarchy (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Wormhead,” who described it as “pretty weird. It’s a series of mind-blowing anime shorts, specially the short ‘Happy Machine.'” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

 

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: UNDERGODS (2020)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Chino Moya

FEATURING: Johann Myers, Géza Röhrig, and ensemble cast

PLOT: “K” and “Z” drive their van around a clapped-out shell of a city collecting dead bodies and telling each other about their dreams.

Still from Undergods (2020)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: The various stories in Undergods interlock with a dreamy (at times, literally) logic worthy of Luis Buñuel. The various future-creepy scenarios are haunting, unsettling, and puzzling, but anchored by two of the most pleasant corpse-haulers one could hope to meet.

COMMENTS: Only the most fragile of barriers protect civilization as we know it today form the looming dystopia of tomorrow. Undergods two guides, body collectors “K” and “Z,” illustrate this point through their narrative dreams, which occasionally bump into reality and each other. Our affable van drivers share a camaraderie forged by their grisly work and offset by their friendly banter and shared can of rum. Moya’s stories unfold and unsteady us in the finest tradition of H.G. Wells, George Orwell, Phillip K. Dick, and the Black Mirror television series.

Undergods opens with an ill-boding narrative about a mysterious 11th-floor neighbor, Harry, who is locked out of his apartment and crashes with Ron and Ruth for the weekend, distressing the former and romancing the latter. After a bender, Ron encounters the apartment’s superintendent and learns that he and Ruth are presently the building’s only occupants. Harry is a charlatan. Ron and Harry scuffle in the elevator. The superintendent begins a tour, opening the door to a father and daughter prospective tenants with Ron’s corpse on the floor.

And so it goes in Undergods. That segment segues into a bedtime story being told by that father to his daughter, a story that itself segues back into the world of van-men K and Z. Like a game of “Sammy the Snake,” the chain of narratives grows and twists until, Ouroboros-style, it feeds back into to the conversation about dreams. The vignettes are invariably sad. Perhaps the happiest event is Dominic’s promotion to “head engineer”–which is small comfort, seeing as his wife’s first husband, presumed dead fifteen years prior, has just been released from a prison facility (found in K’s and Z’s milieu) and now she wants to leave him (Dominic, that is, not her recently returned husband). Undergods‘ plot is just begging for a diagram; but unfortunately I don’t make art, I review it.

Even before the first fully-fleshed story unfolds, the dystopia is firmly established. I don’t know what wreck of an old Soviet town Moya filmed in, but it is beautifully run-down and oozing with creepy grandeur. Ashy snow (or snowy ash) falls continually over the nearly-abandoned streets. The film score feels lifted from an early John Carpenter movie, providing further alienation whenever the electro-pop tones sound off. Undergods never seems to stop moving forward, until we find we never left the van. That’s all right: it’s scary outside, and K and Z have rum to share.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Chino Moya’s feature debut is a haunting, almost impenetrable film, one billed as a dark fantasy but that in reality resists categorization. It will leave you with more questions than answers, but if you let it suck you into its strange world, you might not end up minding that.” –Thomas O’Connor, Tilt Magazine (festival screening)

CAPSULE: TERROR 5 (2016)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Sebastian Rotstein, Federico Rotstein

FEATURING: Walter Cornás, Lu Grasso, Gastón Cocchiarale, Arias Alban

PLOT: An anthology of horror stories in an Argentinian town told over a single night, involving revenge, zombie-like creatures, and snuff films.

Still from Terror 5 (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: What strangeness is to be found here can mostly be credited to shoddy construction.

COMMENTS: If you’re looking for something nice to say about Terror 5, then the camerawork isn’t bad. There’s a nice shot of a blue neon cross, whose glow becomes reflected in the luminous eyes of the “zombies” who spontaneously appear when the local mayor is cleared of corruption in a construction tragedy. And there’s nothing wrong with the acting; the players do the best they can to inject some life into the dull scenarios.

But the script! Ay! It all plays out in one Argentinian town in a single night, and the five plot strands—each of which is supposedly inspired by an urban legend—connect, somewhat. But none of them are well thought out or interesting in themselves. Nor is the overall architecture sound. While the movie cuts between four of the stories, the worst, a tale of students who take revenge on their teachers at night, plays out in its entirety right up front. Since there isn’t much to it—the characters all buy into the absurd conceit with little resistance, with no explanation of why the teachers don’t fight back and no tension or internal conflict to be found in the new student seduced into the cabal—it lowers expectations for the rest of the tales. One of the remaining plotlines is basically an extended sex scene with a senselessly brutal finale. Another involves two men in their cars, waiting patiently for a plot that never arrives; it’s largely a conversation over walkie-talkies, with another grisly out-of-nowhere ending. It makes almost no sense at all. (At one point one of the men says “I’m super confused,” and that’s before his pal starts talking about “the shower game” and parallel universes.) The introductory and climactic story involves the aforementioned non-zombies and makes a weak stab at a generic satire about political corruption. That leaves one episode of some interest: a booze-and-pot costume party at which a jerk dressed in KISS makeup dares the assembly to watch a snuff film and bullies a heavyset kid until he snaps. Due to some reasonably convincing acting from the greasepainted lout and his victim, it’s the best segment, but it’s still a yawner.

Each of the stories are ridiculous and poorly motivated, but they aren’t executed in a dreamlike or absurd fashion that might engage our interest. Instead, they’re played straight, as if they were really horror shorts. Although there is a mildly surreal aesthetic at work here in the unreal scenarios, what weirdness results is largely by accident rather than design.

The idea of making a hypertext horror is not a bad one, and the filmmakers don’t do anything especially obnoxious, but Terror 5 just plain fails on a storytelling level. With ruthless cutting, they might have salvaged a (still relatively lame) 30 minute short from this material. For sleaze film fans, it offers a smidgen of sex and nudity and a modicum of violence and gore. There’s very little terror, though, and even less sense.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Terror 5 is a movie that will turn viewers on and probably trip them out once they realize the almost certainly ominous object of their salacious contemplations…”–Misty Wallace, Cryptic Rock (DVD)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: UMBILICAL WORLD (2018)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of David Firth, Paul MacKenzie, Christian Webb

PLOT: A remixed collection of David Firth’s absurdist flash animation cartoons, like “Salad Fingers” and “Health Reminder,” assembled into a stream-of-consciousness feature with some new material.

Still from Umbilical World (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The nature of the project—an anthologized (though “remixed”) collection of previously published material as opposed to something originally conceived as a unified piece—makes Umbilical World somewhat suspect as an official List entry. There is enough bizareness here to merit the “” tag, however, and that will be more than enough endorsement for many folks.

COMMENTS: Umbilical World begins with “Salad Fingers,” the sweet green goblin with vegetable digits (and David Firth’s most popular creation) struck by lightning and dissolving into a puddle, out of which a glistening umbilical organ rises and glides into low Earth orbit, where it grows on to have relations with celestial objects.

It’s totally and delightfully surreal, of course, but this opening is also a way of implying connectivity between these shorts, although in reality there is no serious connective tissue between the segments. The absurdist miniatures here range from the silly tale of Salad Fingers adopting some sort of oil-soaked battered tin war surplus cylinder, to a skit with skinless gangsters using twisted Prohibition-era slang to order drinks, to straight-up satires of ads and public-service announcements, to a truly nightmarish bit involving a razor-taloned doctor puppet who wounds a horse and feasts on its blood. (Those who have only been exposed to Firth’s lighter, satirical side may be shocked by how terrifyingly dark he can go.) There is, at least, a unity of style and attitude, themes of insanity and death and despair and tubes suck through your skull, and a consistent vein of coal-black humor used to cope with these existential terrors. Extra-weird bits include a character vomiting scrabble tiles when questioned by a head sticking out of a tree stump—not to mention a baby-faced umbilicus entering a photograph of a vagina, emerging from a photograph of an anus, and vomiting eyeballs. There’s a new insane concept once every thirty seconds on average. And there are a surprising number of decapitations—usually not fatal—running throughout the work.

The transitions between the sequences are new material, with ideas like Salad Fingers taking place on a microscopic world on a piece of moldy bread. Characters also watch new cartoons on televisions embedded in the back of other characters heads. Stylistically, much of the animation remains true to Firth’s original flash versions, updated to HD; there are also segments dabbling in an ultra-grotesque form of cutout animation, with cross-eyed photorealistic heads bobbling unsteadily on animated bodies. One extended, trippy bit of digital manipulation, where 21st century  amoebas morph in pseudo-3D over the image before exploding into a fractal supernova and then turning into a stop-motion / homage with mannequin heads and a spinning plate of fruit and sundered body parts, ventures into brave new territory. The music—by Flying Lotus, the late Marcus Fjellström, and others—is eerie and well-matched to the mood. And while the individual pieces featured here may work better as shorts—there can be too much of a good thing, at least in one sitting—the experience is like leaving Firth’s YouTube channel on autoplay while waiting for the drugs to kick in, then checking in just when you’re peaking to find something on that plays like a collaboration between , , and a serial killer.

On a personal level, I was only familiar with the three Firth shorts previously published on these pages, plus a few more we screened and passed over for another day. I suspect someone like me may be in the best position to appreciate this collection. If you have too much familiarity with Firth’s work, you might be disappointed in how little new material is here, or be upset if your personal favorite was left out. If you have too little familiarity with Firth’s work, you might miss out on a bit of context or some of the umbilical connections, or simply be stunned by the mix of -style jokes with nightmares that would make bolt up in bed screaming. In any case, there is an obvious pitch to this work: Firth has worked hard publishing on YouTube to build a fan base, but paltry streaming advertising revenues don’t pay the bills for 99% of content providers. Like a Kickstarter reward, Umbilical World offers fans a chance to show him a little financial support, and to receive something new and exclusive in exchange. Umbilical World also immortalizes Firth’s work in a less ephemeral fashion. It’s available streaming (click here for options), or on DVD with a bonus “making of” documentary and director’s commentary.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In terms of the vibe, think Bill Plympton crossed with Eraserhead.”–Joe Bendel, J.B. Spins

CAPSULE: AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON (1987)

DIRECTED BY: Joe Dante, Carl Gottlieb, Peter Horton, John Landis, Robert K. Weiss

FEATURING: “Lots of Actors”, including Arsenio Hall, , , Steve Forrest, David Alan Grier, B. B. King, , Steve Guttenberg, , Kelly Preston, , , Andrew Dice Clay, Griffin Dunne

PLOT: A collection of sketches parodying late-night TV content, anchored by a specific parody of goofy 1950s space operas.

Still from Amazon Women on the Moon (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The sketch film has always been rare enough to merit a double take when one appears in cinemas, but this particular example of the form isn’t especially unusual, with nothing particularly outlandish or shocking, and the majority of sketches being of the one-joke variety.

COMMENTS: Although anthologies have been a recurring genre since early cinema, the heyday of the “sketch film” variant was the early 1970s: The Groove Tube, TunnelVision, and king-of-the-form Kentucky Fried Movie all parodied television’s challenge to attention spans. The form was also fairly economical, providing quick work to underemployed actors and aspiring comedy writers alike. None of these were box office bonanzas, though, so when Amazon Women on the Moon came along more than a decade later, it was fair to ask if it was a bold attempt to refresh the formula, or a last gasp for a format that had never truly lived.

Let’s go with B. First and foremost, Amazon Women is a comedy, but while it has quite a few solid jokes, it reveals time and again that it doesn’t have much else. Let’s consider one of the film’s best sequences, a vivid re-creation of 1930-era Universal horror movies starring Ed Begley, Jr. as the son of ’ Invisible Man. The black-and-white atmosphere is rich, and Begley even gets to repeat the famous bandage-removal scene. The catch: he’s not invisible at all. It’s a funny joke, as he obliviously cavorts about the room in the nude. The problem is, the sketch has another two minutes to go, and so we get more variations on the same joke, searching for an end.

This happens a lot. Scenes have a funny premise at their core, but then they have to keep going to justify their presence in a Hollywood motion picture: David Alan Grier sings in a super-white way—then he does it some more. A funeral turns into a Catskills roast—and we get the whole roast. Other sketches are shorter, but their jokes are smaller, too, and the scenes still feel stretched and padded. Amazon Women on the Moon has a tight five minutes; it gets an hour-and-a-half.

The film is not without its charms. The parodies have a clever eye for their sources, such as a 30s-era scare propaganda film that subtly re-dresses the same set over and over. Several performances capture the desired anarchic spirit, such as Griffin Dunne’s incompetent doctor and Carrie Fisher’s gullible ingénue. And every now and then, the film manages to tap into something sublimely silly; my personal favorite is an In Search Of/Unsolved Mysteries amalgam that manages to mashup the sordid deeds of Jack the Ripper with a more supernatural tale. But Moon’s a film that earns smiles more than laughs.

Ultimately, Amazon Women on the Moon is “Saturday Night Live” with slightly better production values: the jokes are hit and miss, and there’s a lot of work to get to the end of each sketch. It’s not the worst of its kind (that would be the execrable Movie 43), but it’s far from the finest. That honor probably belongs to Kentucky Fried Movie, and the filmmakers know it; references to fictional producer Samuel L. Bronkowitz mark Moon as Movie‘s spiritual sequel. But bad news, Sam: Amazon Women on the Moon is no Fistful of Yen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Amazon Women on the Moon is everything that Movie 43 wished it could have been, trenchant, hilarious, weird, and just plain fun.” — Sean Patrick, Geeks

(This movie was nominated for review by roastphoenix. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

ARIA (1987)

It’s no  revelation to say that supporters and patrons of the arts mantle an attitude of progressiveness and promote themselves as such. For the most part, in the contemporary West at least, that’s a fallacy. A spirit of ultra-conservatism has hijacked virtually every art form. One finds it even in the least expected places. Impressionism can be found in bland texture-less prints  at Corproate Christendom’s Hobby Lobby, who even have their own dead hypocritical hack pseudo-impressionist: Thomas Kinkade. Abstract expressionism has gone the way of J.C. Penny office decor. Surrealism has been relegated to melting-clock stickers on the folders of angsty teenaged boys. Horror and sci-fi film aficionados subscribe to formula expectations, often reacting with hostility to anything that contains an ounce of originality, style, or challenge (i.e. A.I., Prometheus, The Babadook, The Witch). With damned few exceptions, rock and roll is dead, as is jazz, which has been sabotaged by the self-appointed tradition preservationists (i.e. Wynton Marsalis) and devolved into the oxymoronic smooth jazz (Kenny G). Nowhere is orthodox contagion more in evidence than in that Queen Mother of all art forms: Opera. American opera fans are about the only demographic that can actually render comic book fanboys a comparatively innovative lot. Who would have thunk it?

Yet, the tradition of opera, ballet, art music hardly paved the way for such conservativism. As both conductor and opera director, Richard Wagner found no one’s music or ideas sacred, not even his own, and complained that younger conductors were playing his music too reverentially. Gustav Mahler took an equally innovative approach to stage direction. His own body of work took the art form (the symphony) into an astoundingly elastic direction, even influencing the Second Vienesse School (which makes the sanctification of both his and their music rather baffling).

When that uncouth Leopold Stokowski and  teamed up for Fantasia (1940) and dared to suggest that art music could be both dangerous and kitsch fodder for transcription and animation, the purists were outraged. The outcome was an unparalleled flop for Disney; it took decades to recoup his investment and earn critical reevaluation (Stoki, par for the course, weathered everything). Financiers took note, and nothing on this scale was really attempted again until Continue reading ARIA (1987)