Tag Archives: Anthology

CAPSULE: TINY CINEMA (2022)

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Tiny Cinema is currently available for VOD rental or purchase. The Blu-ray releases on Oct. 11, 2022 and is available for pre-order.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Paul Ford, Tyler Cornack

COMMENTS: Oh, anthology horror: what are we to do with you? There’s something of a process for writing about long-form narrative films. (There’s also a process for dealing with short films, albeit a semi-tragic one: largely ignore them because of the limited market.) But for me, anthologies present a quandary. The broad, brush-stroke of “Here are some themes and things that happened” clashes with the impulse to write about each of the titles. Tyler Cornack’s assembly of short films (developed, if I read correctly, from some of his even shorter films) rarely bores the viewer—a benefit of flitting from one story the next with due haste—and never quite draws the viewer into the world—a disadvantage of that very same process.

Brief poking around the internet suggests that the closing short, “Daddy’s Home,” was one of every other critics’ least favorite segments. However, this oddity best captured my attention and is clearly the weirdest of this oddball crop of macabre. Sam is on a blind date, and it is going well. So well that the young woman he’s ended up with busts out what he thinks is some casual cocaine. Having snuffed the bump, she informs him that, no, that is not blow, the ashes of her father. This triggers the most unusual curse I’ve ever witnessed. Troubled by this reveal, Sam endures the evening’s remains, and leaves the lady with no promise of ever seeing her again. The next day, the dad jokes begin. “Excuse me, do you have a bookmark?,” “I do have a book, but my name’s not ‘Mark’!,” is but one of the awful-awkward rejoinders he finds himself spouting. As he begins to age rapidly and lose his hair, he decides to visit the home of his blind-date for a showdown whose finale reminded me of a classic sketch involving seduced milkmen.

Other offerings include the smirk-inducing exploration of who the infamous “she” of “that’s what she said” might be; a Nekromantik 2/Re-Animator hybrid which has the welcome touch of showing personal growth in the main character; a liquor store robbery/sexual role-playing ensemble buddy comedy; a time-loop apocalypse tale which has the courage to ask the question, Would you have sex with your future self to save the planet?, and… so on in that vein. To praise this movie with faint damnation, each of the segments would have done better as a short before a film festival feature. Instead, these scattershot ideas are minimally held together by the dead-pan charisma of Paul Ford, whose welcome presence prevented me from tossing this into the Try Again bin.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Cornack has found the perfect balance of narrative variety and tonal consistency. For while these stories flirt variously with sci-fi, or horror, or the tropes of mobster or heist flicks, what unifies them – beyond their shared location and the Host’s occasional interventions – is that they are all weird, witty and utterly wrong.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ROBOT CARNIVAL (1987)

Robotto kânibaru

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: , Atsuko Fukushima, Kôji Morimoto, Hiroyuki Kitazume, Manabu Ôhashi, Hidetoshi Ômori, Yasuomi Umetsu, Hiroyuki Kitakubo, Takashi Nakamura

FEATURING: N/A

PLOT: Robot-themed animated shorts are assembled under the banner of a traveling “Robot Carnival.”

COMMENTS:

What do you call a robot made out of all kinds of things?

A Smörgåsborg!

It’s a dark day when the “Robot Carnival” comes to town. In a windswept desert, a young boy finds the torn remains of a poster. Who can say what the year is? All that is on display is a little village peopled by survivors: survivors who immediately suss the danger of the coming attraction. They flee to their homes, nail jagged bits of wood across doors and windows, and wait out the menace. The menace is in the form a gargantuan machine chuffing its way to the center of town; chuffing and crushing, leveling half the homes before the true fireworks begin. Yes, the Robot Carnival is here: featuring a full band, with rocket trombones; bomb-dropping ballerina-droids; and a fireworks display that will leave you flattened.

This dark whimsicality is Robot Carnival‘s opening salvo. Among the collection’s attractions is the nebulous “Clouds” segment (dir. Manabu Ôhashi), the most non-traditional of the spectacles. A series of old-photograph sections come to life, as a robot boy travels ever leftwards with meditative, and possibly mythic, imagery playing in the background. “Presence” (dir. Yasuomi Umetsu) is the longest of the bunch, and starts off with a gang of hooligans severing the head of a passing toff to use as a football; rest assured, the decapitated automaton minces no words about his displeasure at being kicked around by these young jackanapes. The tone shifts to tell the story of a steampunk toy maker who crafts a robotic companion, and who then makes an immediately regrettable decision which haunts him the rest of his days.

The crème-de-la-crème (or whatever a robot-preferred dessert substance may be) is “Nightmare” (dir. Takashi Nakamura), a beautifully eerie fantasia with a cartoonishly comic undercurrent. A strange ‘bot astride a hovering mono-cycle travels the night, zapping power transformers, vehicles—anything electrical—to summon therefrom smiling prowlers. (The sight of dozens of jaggedly lithe metal gremlins springing from an earth-mover will happily haunt my memory for years to come.) This eldritch summoner, whose manner and appearance suggest the fabled Pied Piper, is interrupted by a drunk, who espies the massing mechanical monsters and tries to hie to safety on his scooter—only to zip headlong into the massive puppet-master-bot for a sequence worthy of “Merry Melodies.”

As with any mixture, the quality varies from section to section. However, considering these anime shorts were produced by the director/animator team behind Akira, there is much comfort—and much robot—to be taken in the fact that they are one talented team among many involved in this cavalcade of clankinous and creepy contraptions . Across the seven short films, flanked by Katsuhiro Ôtomo and Atsuko Fukushima’s paired intro and outro, Robot Carnival clatters along at an occasionally uneven, but never dull, shambling of hisses, humor, gears, and grandeur.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you’re a core anime fan, these shorts may be a little too alien and unfamiliar, but if you have a soft spot for creative animation then there’s plenty to love here… The animation is exemplary, the art styles wildly original and the stories support the madness.” -Niels Matthijs, Onderhond

CAPSULE: THE HOUSE (2022)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels (Part One), Niki Lindroth von Bahr (Part Two), Paloma Baeza (Part Three)

FEATURING: Voices of , , Jarvis Cocker, Susan Wakoma, Helena Bonham Carter

PLOT: Designed by an eccentric 19th-century architect, a magnificent house traps and torments a series of owners over the centuries.

COMMENTS: This unusual house has three stories. The first is classically unsettling, the second is downright creepy, and the third is charmingly hokey. Each story’s physical structure is ever-changing, as the house is built, re-built, and re-built, then is infested and decays, finally embracing its ephemeral nature. From its loftily sinister beginnings as a macro-doll’s house up through its final untethering from its foundations, the titular mansion houses three separate visions: one man’s cruel infliction of nightmarish doom; one man’s mental disintegration as he attempts to tame the decaying edifice; and one woman’s spiritual liberation. Each director provides a unique touch, but each tale fits together, creating a narrative arc that morphs into an arc of redemption.

The chronicle begins with a house within a home. A doll’s house, that is. Mabel’s immediate family has fallen from grace, and a troupe of off-putting relatives chastise them. That night, her father gets drunk and wanders angrily through the woods, only to stumble across an illuminated sedan chair, the luxurious transport housing the altogether-too-creepy architect, Van Schoonbeek (“clean stream”, one of the most subtle bits of foreshadowing I’ve seen), who promises Mabel’s family a beautiful new place to live. But as is so often the case, midnight rendezvous with giggling fatcats lead to terror and lamentation.

The House dodges the bullet typical of anthology films in that, unlike the physical structure, none of the sections are weak. Their tenor differs, as well as their style. The first features unnerving felt-made people, the latter two anthropomorphic animals. The dark shadows of Mabel’s section become marvelously lit, and tackily modern, in the second segment. An unnamed “Developer” (perfectly voiced by Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker as an at-his-wits’-end handy-rat; he also provides the closing credit’s song) begins falling part as he repairs the now-dilapidated house in the hopes of selling it off. Fate is as unkind to him as it was to the first owners—albeit with a modern twist. Part two climaxes with an intricately choreographed club-jazz dance of fabric beetles and a run-in with the law after the Developer’s dentist, sick of being telephoned at all hours and called “sweet-heart” and “dear,” sends the police around to the hapless rat realtor.

The House breaks no new ground, and much of the spook-or-creep factor relies on old fashioned methods: light-play, musical cues, background laughter, scuttles, wriggles, and poofs of poison. But it all works more than well enough. I was not unpleasantly transported in mind to that special place I can end up when emerging from a well-crafted film experience. It is worth noting the third segment, which differs sharply from the first two. It’s the story of the final owner, and of her desire for her home clashing with a subconscious itch for freedom. Helena Bonham Carter’s hippy cat performance is relief-through-whimsy (she pays rent with potent crystals), and she is the perfect guide for the frazzled young owner. The House‘s first two acts scrabble in the darker corners of the mind, but when the sun breaks through the finale’s mists, I could feel the haunting memories begin to recede.

The House is exclusive to Netflix.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a consistent anthology, in that it’s always just about the same level of surreal, playful, sadistic, and entertaining. Across its different styles and species, The House never holds the audience’s hand when it comes to the poetic flourishes from its mighty gradual pacing; it prefers to be odd…” -Nick Allen, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: COUNTRY OF HOTELS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Julio Maria Martino

FEATURING: Adam Leese, , 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)