Tag Archives: Arthouse

CAPSULE: NEPTUNE FROST (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Anisia Uzeyman, Saul Williams

FEATURING: Cheryl Isheja, Bertrand Ninteretse (AKA Kaya Free), Elvis Ngabo

PLOT: In an alternate-reality African nation, an escaped coltan miner teams up with an intersexed refugee to hack global information systems through their dreams.

Still from Neptune Frost (2021)COMMENTS: Neptune Frost‘s scenario involves an authoritarian crackdown in an imaginary African country; a resistance movement composed of university students, refugees, and escaped coltan miners; and global hacking accomplished in dreams. With a first act that indiscriminately flips back and forth between two different on-the-run protagonists, one of whom is played by two actors, and dialogue spoken and sung in five different languages, Neptune Frost loses viewers in its thickets early on. And that’s before the first big musical number—in which a dream spirit transports the dreamer into a black-lit, monitor-lined room festooned with spinning rainbow bicycle wheels and advises him (later her) to “hack” into abstract systems like land rights, labor, and greed—even occurs. The film is aware of its own difficulty: a third of the way through, a character addresses the viewer directly: “Maybe you’re asking yourself WTF is this? A poet’s idea of a dream?”

Persevere through the confusion, or at least get yourself into a headspace where you’re not invested in everything adding up in a rational way, and you’ll find much to appreciate in Neptune Frost. Foremost is the music, which ranges from work songs (which carry over into protest songs) to dreamy electronica-based trance chants, and eventually full-bore hip-hop bashes. The African setting—landscapes, dress, flora and fauna—fosters a unique language of images. The costuming tends to the bizarre: background characters have keyboard parts and diodes glued to their clothes and faces, a spirit has a head enclosed in a semicircular wicker cage, the state’s brutal police favor pink uniforms, and Neptune herself sometimes has a bird’s nest on her shoulder. As it progresses, the movie throws datastreams of glitchy cybernetic psychedelia at the screen to represent its mystical hack of the global order. The narrative remains hard-to-follow all the way to the end, but themes of technology, gender, colonialism, and DIY revolutionary politics (local, global, and imaginary) float in and out of the mix. The film’s aesthetic may be Afrofuturist, but its style is Afrosurrealist.

Truthfully, there is almost too much to process in Neptune Frost: both the characters and the events can be a chore to sort out. The film’s concepts are half-hidden in a haze of impressionistic poetry and song (with phrases such as “binary crime,” “martyr loser king,” and “unanimous goldmine” carrying obscure significance); although at other times, messages are delivered bluntly (one song bears the refrain, “fuck Mr. Google”). It’s no surprise to learn that writer Saul Williams is a poet and musician. If Neptune Frost sometimes feels like a concept album brought to life, that may be because there is one: Williams’ 2016 left-field rap album Martyrloserking (and two sequels), plus a graphic novel. This world is much wider than the slice we see in the film, and further exploration may yield more answers than are given here. Neptune Frost comes achingly close to a general “” rating, and also to a “” rating. But ultimately, while impressive, I think the project’s appeal is decidedly niche: fans of Afrofuturism, proponents pf progressive (verging on radical) politics, and advocates of African film in general (of which we have far too few examples). If you’re not in one of those groups, but have adventurous tastes in cinema and are up for a challenge, then Neptune Frost is also a worthwhile visit: there is truly nothing quite like it out there.

Neptune Frost opens June 3 in New York City and Dallas, expanding to additional art-house theaters through June. We’ll let you know when streaming options get sorted out.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a bold, bizarre, and unflinchingly confident debut that prompts its audience to interrogate the very real human costs of the information age through the speculative lens of a future both vastly different and uncannily similar to our own.”–Toussaint Egan, Polygon (festival screening)

CAPSULE: ANATOMY OF HELL (2004)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Amira Casar, Rocco Siffredi, voice of Catherine Breillat

PLOT: A woman pays a gay man to observe her intimate moments for four nights.

Still from Anatomy of Hell (2004)

COMMENTS: Sartre said Hell is other people. Catherine Breillat says Hell is other people’s bodies; or, more specifically, other genders’ bodies; or, when you get right down to it, women’s bodies.

A Woman goes to a gay disco and slits her wrists in the bathroom. She’s rescued by a gay Man, who takes her to a clinic to be stitched up. The Woman proposes to pay him to “watch her when she’s unwatchable.” He goes to her house for four nights, pours himself a few fingers of Jack Daniels to help him make it through the night, and they talk while she lies naked and exposed. “They fragility of female flesh inspires disgust or brutality,” he muses. “The veils [men] adorn us with anticipate our shrouds,” the Woman proclaims. (The conversation is not intended to be naturalistic; it’s a staged Platonic dialogue with a poetic overlay). While never verbally expressing anything but disgust for the Woman, the Man is drawn to experiment intimately with her body (including scenes involving garden tools, and worse). Then the arrangement ends. He is moved, and, in what may be a fantasy sequence, commits an act of brutality. That’s it; it’s partially successful conversion therapy.

Siffredi, a pornographic actor best known for his recurring “Buttman” character, turns out to be a surprisingly capable actor—although his moods are restricted to disgust and melancholy, both simmering. Casar is beautiful as she lounges around naked, but her role could be played by almost any beautiful nude actress. Although she shows more range than Siffredi, as any actress might, she has trouble putting across dialogue like “in intercourse, the act isn’t what matters, but its meaning.” Casar’s body double is anatomically correct. Breillat herself dubs the thoughts for both parties.  And that’s it for the acting—which is a problem, in what’s basically a character-driven two-hander (explicit though it is, it’s so anti-erotic that could never make the grade as a one-hander).

On release, Anatomy of Hell received a lot of understandable criticism for its overly-simplistic brand of radical gender philosophy. Taken literally, the film argues (explicitly and didactically, despite the poetic trappings) that men are disgusted by women’s bodies and instinctively long to damage them—and that this misogyny is even more pronounced in gay men. That’s not a position I would want to defend in a Ph.D. thesis. But while that literal reading is both ridiculous and offensive, there is another layer to the film that is hopeful. Despite his disgust at The Woman’s body, The Man is eventually seduced by it. And after the job is done, he finds himself changed by the experience: “I experienced total intimacy with her. And I don’t even know her name.” Radical posturing aside, Anatomy of Hell at least partly celebrates the alchemy of shared human bodies: that point when carnal disgust is overcome and physical commingling becomes a spiritual experience. Look past words to the magic of bodies, this wordy picture whispers. Though mercifully short, Anatomy of Hell is a hard watch, composed of dull, pseudo-profound dialogues broken by shock sequences designed to reinforce its putative thesis that female bodies are disgusting. It’s not recommended, but—if you can bypass the untenable literal reading its characters propose—this erotic experiment is more thought-provoking than its detractors suggest.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“But sometimes [Breillat] is just plain goofy, as in ‘Anatomy of Hell,’ which plays like porn dubbed by bitter deconstructionist theoreticians.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Motyka, who asked for more Breillat reviews and stated that Anatomy of Hell was “especially worth looking at, because of its rejection of a traditional plot.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

*23. JULIET OF THE SPIRITS (1965)

Giulietta degli spiriti

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“I remember I had some exaltation about color. I see colors not like they are normally – we see colors in the object. In this case, I saw colors, just as they are, detached from the object. I had for the first time the feeling of the presence of the color in a detached way.”–Federico Fellini

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Mario Pisu

PLOT: Juliet, a wealthy housewife, has reason to suspect her husband is cheating on her. She has always been attuned to the spirit world, and after a seance she begins seeing visions and hearing voices; one of the whispering entities tells her that her neighbor, the strange, sexually liberated Suzy, will be her teacher. As her marriage disintegrates, her visions become harder to distinguish from reality, until Juliet snaps and banishes the spirits.

Still from Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

BACKGROUND:

  • Fellini’s first feature-length color film (although his short segment for the 1962 anthology film Boccaccio ’70 was in color.)
  • Fellini took LSD (in a clinical setting) for inspiration in making this film. He found it “a little disappointing.”
  • Some of the biographical details of onscreen Juliet’s stories come from Giulietta Massina’s own experiences in her marriage to Fellini. The house seen in the film is the couple’s real house.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Juliet of the Spirits parades a host of bizarrely costumed Felliniesque grotesques across the screen in its 130 minutes, but aside from the perpetually smiling eye-of-the-storm Masina, the one who makes the biggest impression is buxom, bodacious Suzy (Sandra Milo). In one of the movie’s unforgettable scenes, she disrobes (offscreen) in the blink of an eye to demonstrate one of the hedonistic accoutrements in her bordello-like haven: a slide winding directly from her bedroom to her personal post-coital swimming pool.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Hermaphrodite swami reception; faceless purple nuns

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Like his previous 8 1/2, Juliet of the Spirits is a Fellini trip where dreams and fantasies—the more baroque and colorful, the better—intrude into reality as a way to explore the psychology of the film’s protagonist.


Original trailer for Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

COMMENTS: Juliet of the Spirits is transitional Fellini—most obviously, in updating the director’s palette to the full color spectrum, Continue reading *23. JULIET OF THE SPIRITS (1965)

ALL THE HAUNTS BE OURS: A COMPENDIUM OF FOLK HORROR

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Severin Films. 15 disc set.

“Folk Horror” is a buzzword that has blossomed over the past decade to become a marketing phrase. It brings to mind things British, pagan and ancient/medieval, usually in that order. This makes for a nice narrow niche to categorize and sell to the audience; if a film has certain elements that are on the checklist checked off, it’s officially Folk Horror®.  The genre even has its Unholy Trinity: The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General. Of course, with some digging, we find that there’s a lot more to the subject to beyond those tentpoles.

It’s a massive subject tackle, and we’re fortunate that the person taking it on is Kier-la Janisse (film-programmer/editor; founder of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Stories; author of “House of Psychotic Women“) with Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched (2021), a 192 minute documentary serving as a primer/immersion into Folk Horror. It’s the foundation for “All The Haunts Be Ours,” a massive boxs et with 19 feature films (some making their debut on Blu-ray) and tons of bonus material. In short, this is a college semester course compressed into 15 discs; and although it’s pricey, it’s a lot less than what one would be paying for an actual college class. This is the most ambitious box set  that Severin Films has done to date—and they’ve done collections of Al Adamson, Christopher Lee’s European Films, and Andy Milligan in just the past three years!

Woodlands (the first disc in the set, also available as a standalone release) comprehensively examines Folk Horror, beginning with its roots in folklore and literature and moving into film, starting with that Unholy Trinity and other British films, plus television programs like “The Owl Service,” “Children of the Stones,” “Doctor Who,” and the work of Nigel Kneale. The documentary then shifts to North America, examining it by region: New England (Washington Irving, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King); the South (influences of folk music and Evangelicalism), and the West (Native American lore). After that, the film goes global, focusing on horror in Eastern Europe, Australia, Japan, and Brazil, addressing a lot of films you’ve heard of (Viy, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, and the Coffin Joe movies, to name just a few), along with many more that you probably haven’t.

For a 3+ hour documentary, you don’t feel the time drag, and you’ll spend a lot of time afterwards Google-searching availability of titles. Even though it’s a deep dive into the subject, it also feels like it’s just scratching the surface and not even close to being the Last Word in Folk Horror. The subject is thoroughly examined, and even though you could walk away with some sort of definition, “Folk Horror” doesn’t seem “defined” in a way that traps it in a box. It’s a fluid term Continue reading ALL THE HAUNTS BE OURS: A COMPENDIUM OF FOLK HORROR

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EDWARD II (1991)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Derek Jarman

FEATURING: Steven Waddington, Tilda Swinton, Andrew Tiernan, Nigel Terry

PLOT: Upon the death of his father, Edward II lifts the banishment of his friend and lover, Piers Gaveston; in response, his royal court rebels and civil war ensues.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Unlike many period pieces, this has homoerotic dance interludes, a serenade crooned by Annie Lennox, and a chilling scene in which Tilda Swinton’s Queen Isabella lustily bites the neck of a disloyal nobleman. But beyond the obvious oddities, Edward II‘s narrative pinches more than flows, its disjointed scenes rendering the film’s array into a garment that juts out in disquieting spikes at the observer.

COMMENTS: To fully appreciate what is going on in Edward II, one must have a decent grip on England’s 14th-century history, 16th-century theatre, and 20th-century cinema. History’s pertinence pools sickly within the bumps and cracks of Derek Jarman’s austere sets, casting its gloomy but far-reaching glow under the director’s harsh lighting. The doomed players—the king and his lover; the queen, and hers—are archetypal tragic figures attired in smart modern dress. Gilded glamor and radiant red splatters the creaking, decaying artifice of the seat of English power as the flawed monarch fights vainly to secure first the safety of his lover, Gaveston, and then his own. Through Edward II, Jarman grinds his axe in the Middle Ages before taking it to the neck of contemporary England.

Three times it is read that Edward II’s father has died, and three times it is read that Piers Gaveston’s banishment has thus been rendered null and void. To the chagrin of all but the new king, Gaveston returns from France, enchanting Edward anew, and infuriating the establishment. Edward sees nothing but beauty in Gaveston, and feels nothing but his love. Edward’s queen, Isabella, feels spurned, and considers self-exile until Mortimer, the commander of England’s armed forces, convinces her that he has a plan. His plan unfolds, and Edward grudgingly banishes Gaveston once more. But the plan folds in on it itself, and the murky doings of the discontented nobles trigger a series of upsets, turn-abouts, and murders.

This is a juicy tale, to be sure, and that juiciness is reinforced by Jarman’s aesthetic. King Edward’s private haven is a square pool of murky water, tucked away in a basement chamber with rusted-steel walls; upon his second banishment, Gaveston endures a gauntlet of spitting nobles; and blood, when it appears, is ample, particularly after the queen renders harmless an erstwhile ally. The lines are delivered wetly, as well. The actors are not slurping and sputtering, but the sound design emphasizes the wetness of the lips, the throaty fullness of exhortations. The slick-slap of words is brought forward in the sound design and rendered at full volume—dialogue delivered in drenched sorrow.

Whether or not the time-jumping anachronism, accentuated performances, and installation-style shots and sets work for you will hinge on whether you are open to the full Derek Jarman experience. An avid gay rights activist, Jarman eschews any ambiguity about the actual monarch, and is willing, able, and eager to toss aside two things: any cinematic conventions that may stand between him and making beautiful, painterly images, and any staid historicism that may stand between him and his proudly gay point of view. It opens with a conversation between Gaveston and a traveler; two men unabashedly make love behind them. It closes with a lament from Edward playing over shots of assembled, real-life gay rights activists. Derek Jarman had a clear world-view, and in Marlowe’s play, he found the perfect framework to display his classically peculiar visual élan while simultaneously preaching his message.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Derek Jarman’s phantasmagoric, outrageously stylized interpretation of the Christopher Marlowe play, is more a creature of its director’s sensibility than its creator’s… In [Jarman’s] hands, Edward II has become a chic melodrama that’s part art object, part The Valley of the Dolls.” -Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE IDIOTS (1998)

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Idioterne; AKA Dogma2: The Idiots

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bodil Jørgensen, Jens Albinus, Anne Louise Hassing

PLOT: A Danish commune finds meaning and community by acting like “idiots” (i.e., pretending to be mentally disabled), especially in public).

Still from The Idiots (1998)

COMMENTS: As Karen dines alone at a restaurant, she observes a caretaker attempting to feed two adult males who keep wandering over to disturb the other diners, insistently saying “hi” and grabbing the napkins off the table. Unperturbed when Stoffer, one of these “idiots,” grabs her hand, she follows the group outside, and even joins them in the taxicab when Stoffer refuses to release his grip. She is intrigued to discover the performance was all a sham, and Stoffer is actually the intelligent leader of a small, cult-like commune who stage these performances in restaurants, factory tours, swimming pools, office board meetings, and the like.

Far from being offended, Karen is intrigued enough to join the group. The rest of the movie then follows their antics as individual members seek to unleash their “inner idiot” by “spazzing,” mostly in public, but also among themselves. Although the movie establishes dynamics between the characters, in the end, it’s a bit like watching an unscripted, non-comedic version of Jackass—or, in its grosser moments, like scaled-back versions of the Vienna Actionists’ scat orgy in Sweet Movie. Possible motivations for this behavior are hinted at—shocking the bourgeois, playing a game, returning to a state of innocence, mocking the handicapped, championing abnormality, participating in a ritualistic group therapy—but ultimately, the idiots’ reasons for their idiocy remain as inscrutably individual as their activities are indisputably idiotic.

The movie is only watchable in a geek-show sort of way—up until a brilliantly executed final spazz that suddenly supplies a retroactive emotional heft to the entire exercise. That climax exists in an ambiguous space somewhere between catharsis and comeuppance, and raises the stakes of the questions that have been festering in our minds about these idiots. Is elective idiocy an insincere affectation, an emotional affliction, or a form of transcendence? Like their director, the idiots may be addicted to making people uncomfortable, but there is also a genuine sadness at the core of the exercise—at least, for some of the participants.

The Idiots is a Dogma 95 film; that is to say, it (aspirationally) follows the rules laid out in the Dogme 95 manifesto intended to revitalize cinema by de-emphasizing production values and returning to the roots of drama. Dogma films were intended to have no non-diegetic music (a rule von Trier violates in the very first scene), to be shot entirely on location, to use only natural light and handheld cameras, etc.: essentially, every story was to be filmed as if it was being captured by a television news crew. Despite co-founding the short-lived movement with Thomas Vinterberg, The Idiots was von Trier’s only Dogma movie. His next film, Dancer in the Dark, was a magical realist musical that was almost as far away from the Dogma credo as imaginable, while still remaining in the limits of the art-house film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This director, in other words, is replaying the guerrilla-theater spirit of the ’60s, but with the cleansing psychodramatic mysticism of a digital-age Ingmar Bergman.”–Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: DAMNATION (1988)

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DIRECTED BY: Béla Tarr

FEATURING: Székely B. Miklós, Vali Kerekes, Gyula Pauer

PLOT: Karrer pines for a married nightclub singer and passes along a smuggling opportunity to her husband.

COMMENTS: The subdued tragedy, utter pointlessness, and active ennui that oozes from this beautifully shot film is probably Damnation‘s goal. From its opening shot of coal bins slowly traveling along a suspended wire track to its closing shot of a mound of earth littered with barbed-wire-looking roots, there’s a great heap of scant going on, with the vivaciousness provided only by the (comparatively) seductive and jaunty film score. It is arguable there is beauty to be found within Damnation; it is inarguable that the viewer is provided countless minutes to keep an eye out for it.

Karrer (Székely B. Miklós) is introduced by his favorite past-time: silently observing full bins of coal traveling off in one direction and empty bins traveling in the opposite. He stares out his window; then we stare at him as he stares into a mirror, shaving. He has an awkward encounter with a woman through a chained gap in a door; she claims to have had enough of him, he claims he should be let inside. A jolly bartender (Gyula Pauer, the only ray of light in the overcast cast) chats amiably with Karrer about the slow destruction of body and soul before getting sidetracked from his chuckling existentialism in order to address the actual topic at hand: a parcel needs picking up, and the retriever’s fee is “20%”. (“20% of what?”, some may ask—it matters as much as Hitchcock’s suitcase full of incandescent distraction.) The woman from behind the door is a nightclub singer. Her husband has had enough of Karrer. So what’s the sporting thing to do? Offer the singer’s husband the job and the reward.

The camerawork somehow sludges into fascinating. Under the direction of Gábor Medvigy, the lens practically skulks its way through the film, slinking languidly left to right across sets as (in)action takes place in the fore-, mid-, or back-ground. It idles over unlikely figures, such as the bar’s accordionist noodling through an ambiguous melody; or the waiter snoozing on a chair; or a film extra sitting in absolute stillness amidst rhythmically pacing dancers. This circle of revelers—if one could be so generous as to call them that—is a metaphor, encapsulating Tarr’s obsessive message of cyclical tedium and its inevitable, meaningless disintegration.

Despite my intentions, I appear to be suggesting that something profound occurs in Damnation. Perhaps there is, but the question as to whether this is a story worth telling remains. Toward the end, something of an expectable twist limps from the narrative, and on the heels of that subdued reveal comes what may be the film’s most famous sequence: Karrer’s psychological descent into caninity. But Tarr should take note, as his bartender puts it to protagonist, that “[y]our problem is you see things from your perspective.” A biting societal commentary loses its edge if left to dull for two monotonous hours.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“. Tarr’s fascination with their ennui is profound, and while his statement about them isn’t lacking in visual power and philosophical heft, it’s also questionable whether it’s the strongest statement an artist of his caliber can make.” -Jeremiah Kipp, Slant Magazine