Tag Archives: Arthouse

30*. THE CONGRESS (2013)

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DIRECTED BY: Ari Folman                  

FEATURING: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Danny Huston, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Sami Gayle, Paul Giamatti, voice of Jon Hamm

PLOT: Film actress Robin Wright agrees to sell the rights to her image to a studio which will use the captured data to showcase an eternally young avatar in their productions. After 20 years, the producers invite her to extend the contract, and she travels to the meeting of a futuristic congress where all the participants ingest a chemical that allows them to invent their own reality and become anyone. When the congress proposes sharing this drug with the masses, Wright rebels, but her resistance is put down, and another 20 years on, she surveys the world that has resulted.

Still from The Congress (2013)

BACKGROUND:

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The trip through the animated landscape of Abrahama City is rife with psychedelic visions and eye-catching creations. The scenes within the animated universe are densely populated with caricatures of the famous and celebrated, representing alternative identities whom a disaffected humanity have chosen to take on in place of their own. Naming them all would be impossible, but I’d like to offer a particular shout-out to the person who decided to become Magritte’s apple-faced businessman. But the image that stays with you is a lonely and scared Robin Wright standing alone in the middle of a large and inhuman motion-capture dome, presenting a prism of emotions as the computers capture her every nuance. It’s an ironic manifesto for the value of human acting, as Wright the actress manifests the uncontrolled feelings of Wright the character.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Entrance to Abrahama City, Robin grows wings

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Animation has always reveled in its power to bend reality, making it an ideal medium for fantastical visions and deep dives into the imagination. The high-wire act that The Congress has to walk is literalizing animation’s attempt to slip the surly bonds of the real world. It’s not enough for this fantasy landscape to be trippy; it has to be a logical extension of the very real world being abandoned. It’s only appropriate that a movie star, the very avatar of a flesh-and-blood figure creating something artificial for our amusement, would be our guide. The film deftly juxtaposes the two worlds, each commenting upon the other and dramatizing the wonders and perils of our ongoing quest for escapism.

Original trailer for The Congress

COMMENTS: The most recent episode of the excellent podcast Continue reading 30*. THE CONGRESS (2013)

CAPSULE: APPLES (2020)

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Apples is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: Christos Nikou

FEATURING: Aris Servetalis, Sofia Georgovassili

PLOT:  After falling victim to a syndrome that causes sudden memory loss, Aris enters an odd recovery program designed to create new memories for a new identity.

Still from Apples (2020)

COMMENTS: When a man snarls traffic by abandoning his vehicle in the road and sitting on the curb, then denies it was his car, a fellow passenger takes it in stride and calls an ambulance. In Apples, an incurable plague of sudden-onset amnesia is so common that people don’t get angry about the inconveniences it causes. When Aris forgets his name and where he’s going on a public bus, he is routinely sent to a hospital wing dedicated to amnesiacs. After no friends or family come to claim him, he is enrolled in an experimental new program designed to give amnesiacs a new beginning. The regimen involves the subject recreating a series of representative experiences—riding a bicycle, crashing a car, having a one-night stand—and taking Polaroids of themselves at the scene, which they place in a special memory album. With no other obvious options, Aris dutifully enters the program and sets about following the doctors’ instructions for creating a life. A few tantalizing memories of his old existence occasionally break through the fog: a dog’s name, a street address. But all we can be reasonably certain of from his previous life is that he loved apples.

Apples will necessarily be seen as a late entry in the Greek Weird Wave—launched by with the deadpan absurdity of 2009’s Dogtoothand I doubt debuting director Christos Nikou would disavow the influence. Apples is Lanthomisian in rhythm and style, but pared-down to its essential moods. The acting is restrained but subtle, as opposed to the in-your-face, disconnected-from-reality non-acting that inhabits much of the Weird Wave. Servetalis’ nondescript, bearded face forms the perfect blank canvas on which we can project our own anxieties and melancholy. The sense of humor is absurd—Aris on a child’s bike, a doctor suggesting patients’ make therapeutic Molotov cocktails—but never approaches the surreal heights of something like The Lobster. The world here is only slightly askew, with the unexplained amnesia plague and the low-tech setting (Polaroids and cassette tapes instead of cell phones) serving as the only clues we’re not in present day reality. The spare cinematic compositions are designed to reinforce a sense of isolation, even in urban settings, but they are classically framed. (A cemetery scene with bone-white tombstones set against a gray sky and Aris standing in a slumped silhouette is one of the sweeter shots of the year.) It all seems designed to be more audience friendly than usual for the genre, but that choice doesn’t feel like a calculated compromise; rather, Nikou locates a natural space between standard arthouse drama and experimental film where he’s comfortable exploring penetrating ideas.

Note that there are two parts to the program Aris enters: constructing false memories, and creating a new identity for himself. Apples‘ plot focuses our attention on the bizarre methodology of the first part, but thematically, it’s more interested the second part of the formula. Apples becomes an existential fable raising open-ended questions: is Aris’ amnesia a result of traumatic event? Is it, in some sense, a choice? How essential is memory to our identity—if I forget everything, am I still me? Does the hospital’s structured regimen help or hinder Aris to live authentically? Apples invites you to puzzle out these questions on your own. The ending is, ironically, memorable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It all sounds bizarre on paper. But Apples, the first feature from the director and co-writer Christos Nikou, unfolds with an understated deadpan wit that makes even its weirder touches seem plausible, even logical. At times it reminded me of some of the brilliant absurdist satires, like Dogtooth and Attenberg, that have put Greek cinema on the map over the past two decades.”–Justin Chang, NPR (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: AFTER BLUE (DIRTY PARADISE) (2021)

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Weirdest!
After Blue (Dirty Paradise) is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Paula-Luna Breitenfelder, Elina Löwensohn, Agata Buzek,

PLOT: On the all-female planet “After Blue,” an ingenue digs up a woman in the sand, who turns out to be the monstrous killer “Kate Bush”; she is tasked with killing it, under the supervision of her hairdresser mother.

Still from After Blue (Dirty Paradise) (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: It may have its rough edges, but every post-apocalyptic sci-fi psychedelic lesbian acid western that comes down the pike gets automatic consideration as Apocrypha.

COMMENTS: Together with Katrín Ólafsdóttir, Bertrand Mandico has proposed a “Manifesto of Incoherence” for making films. If the notion of a set of rules designed to produce incoherence sounds a little, well, incoherent to you, then you’re not alone. After Blue (Dirty Paradise) is the kind of paradoxical work produced from a dogma of incoherence.

Incoherent, in Madnico’s sense, doesn’t necessarily mean inconsistent. The rules of the planet of After Blue may be insane, but the script adheres to them faithfully. There are no men on the planet because their hair grew inward, killing them. Shaving (of the neck and chest, with a glowing neon razor) is an important ritual for the women of After Blue; as a hairdresser, it’s part of Roxy’s mother’s regular duties. Outsider Kate Bush, by contrast, is known for her hairy arm. Is this making sense? Yes, and no. The shaving motif is a minor point, but it does illustrate how the world of After Blue operates according to its own dreamlike logic. The planet’s inhabitants, on the other hand, don’t always seem to act logically or consistently—at least not according to our understanding of human nature. Kate Bush promises to grant Roxy three hidden desires. In typical fairy tale fashion, these wishes rebound on the wisher; or maybe, her deepest desires Kate Bush grants are different than the wishes Roxy articulates. Or maybe Bush selfishly doesn’t grant them at all, but just does what she wanted to do anyway. It’s difficult to say. When you have a movie in which a blind manbot expels a goo-covered green marble through his nipple, normal behavioral rules may not apply.

The film’s surrealist assembly—part Barbarella, part live-action Fantastic Planet—is more consistent, providing the picture’s actual unity of purpose. We begins with shots of planets submerged in swirling rainbow nebulae, which dissolve into women’s faces as Roxy recites the history of the founding of After Blue to an unseen interrogator. Natural landscapes display After Blue’s strange geology and flora: penile crystals growing on the beach, giant fungi, coral growths, strange tentacled branches. Villages and other structures are built of stone in a ramshackle medieval style; despite the inhabitants’ professed disdain for high technology, they often feature neon lighting. Mandico shoots every scene through colored gels and filters: purples seem to be his go-to shade, but he cycles through oranges, greens, blues and yellows scene by scene. He also favors double exposures and other optical distortions. Oh, and the lithe women of his cast are frequently nude—and engage in a lot of flirtatious seduction, though no actual sex.

With such a lovingly created psychedelic playground to romp in, it’s a shame that Mandico gives his characters little of interest to do or say. After Blue is high on dialogue, low on action. The fairy tale quest structure mostly involves Roxy and her mother Zora traveling a lot, eventually encountering a mysterious character named Sternberg and her illicit cloned android (the only male on the planet). Sternberg seems vaguely threatening, but ultimately neither helps nor hinders our heroines. In fact, other than Kate Bush, the characters have little agency; the movie happens to them as they float through Mandico’s atmosphere. Zora trods through the film wearing a Navajo jacket and a constant expression of bewilderment, an emotion the audience can relate to. Since events on After Blue are self-contained, with no real relevance to concerns of the real world, the story begs for a dynamic and coherent self-contained presentation. Naming a character after an 80s cult songstress is not a strong enough joke to hold our interest for two hours. As it is, it’s like watching a beautiful surrealist slideshow; but your mind is likely to wander during the slow patches. This flaw makes it a missed opportunity for a crossover cult classic, but After Blue sports more than enough visual interest and general weirdness to make it a near-must-watch for this site’s readers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a fantasia perched somewhere between Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics and the darkly surreal universe of William Burroughs’ books… there were moments when the fantasy locale Mandico conjures stopped giving me new things to look and marvel at, but the journey still crackles with a febrile excitement, a playfulness of moods and images that makes it easy to be lulled in all the bizarrerie.”–Leonardo Goi, The Film Stage (festival review)

CAPSULE DOUBLE FEATURE: HOTEL (2001) & HOTEL (2004)

There’s something inherently weird about hotels. After all, they are a temporary domicile, a place you call home for a limited time, and you share the experience with dozens of other people you will never know. (I’ve stayed on more than one occasion at a chain dubbing itself “Home 2,” like it’s the sequel to the much-loved original.) It might explain why we see so many films about them on this site, from hotels that house transient mental patients to hotels stored in the private parts of ancient vampires to hotels where couples meet again and again to decrepit hotels to hotels on the edge of the apocalypse and beyond. So maybe it shouldn’t be too surprising to find two different films in our suggestion box that are content to leave the title at Hotel. Arguably, that alone should tell you it’s about to get strange up in here.

Notably, this pair of films offers us differing points of view: one largely concerning the guests, the other centered on a member of the staff.

HOTEL (2001)

DIRECTED BY: Mike Figgis

FEATURING: Saffron Burrows, , , , , , Burt Reynolds, , David Schwimmer, Mark Strong

Still from Hotel (2001)

PLOT: A film company attempts to shoot a guerilla-style version of “The Duchess of Malfi” while based in a hotel that practices cannibalistic vampirism.

COMMENTS: This hotel variant is a directorial showcase. Figgis indulges all the techniques at his disposal: handheld cameras shooting hyper-saturated video, improvised dialogue, and the same quad-split screen storytelling that he indulged in Timecode. Some have suggested (and a line of dialogue insinuates) that he’s actually playing with Dogme 95 techniques, although his production violates most of Dogme’s rules. What he really seems to be doing is utilizing the same let’s-film-and-see-what-happens philosophy that he’s depicting. So it’s improvised. Real. Which is potentially interesting, especially when his actors are up to the challenge. But it can be equally deadening if they’re not. Sometimes there’s a payoff, like Burt Reynolds’ inexplicable turn as the director of a flamenco troupe, yes-anding his way through a scenario that would not seem to call for him at all. But you’re as likely to get a scene like Salma Hayek and Lucy Liu screaming at each other. Is that really the most interesting thing they could think of to do? It’s weak improv, which makes it weak cinema.

The all-star cast is a huge part of the appeal. It ends up playing like one of those live theatrical experiences where you get a different experience based upon which actors you choose to follow. The real-world examples of this can result in something classy or trashy, and much the same is true here. Consider Rhys Ifans’ gleefully confident turn as a power-mad director, a performance which borders on parody but is the liveliest thing in the film, until he is curiously sidelined before the halfway mark. His counterpoint is David Schwimmer’s Continue reading CAPSULE DOUBLE FEATURE: HOTEL (2001) & HOTEL (2004)

CAPSULE: RADIO ON (1979)

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DIRECTED BY: Christopher Petit

FEATURING: David Beames, Lisa Kreuzer

PLOT: A disc jockey drives across the UK when he learns about his brother’s death.

Still from Radio On (1979)

COMMENTS: Radio On is well aware that its soundtrack is its strongest (or, at least, its most marketable) component. The movie begins with the sound of a radio dial quickly migrating through static and brief news snippets to fasten onto singing “Heroes” (the rare extended version where the crooner sings the lyrics in both English and German). The main cast are quickly credited, and then we launch into the soundtrack credits:  Bowie. Kraftwerk. King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. Ian Dury. A bunch of late punk/early new wave acts now forgotten. Devo. (Though not credited, a young Sting will also cameo, as a guitar-playing gas station pump jockey who sings Eddie Cochran’s “Three Steps to Heaven.”) Cinematic staple “Heroes” continues to drone as the black and white camera pans through a cluttered apartment to eventually light upon a body in a bathtub.

Unfortunately, the zeitgeist tunes and superior camerawork (by associate Martin Schäfer, one of several connections to the German director found in Radio On) are the movie’s only real draws. Made just as Thatcherism was taking hold in the U.K., Radio On is as dour and torpid as the mindset of liberal intellectuals of the period. That body in the bathtub belongs to our DJ protagonist Robert’s dead brother, who, after 25 or so minutes of dilly-dallying, staring off into space, and getting a haircut in what seems like real time, sets him off on a journey to find out what happened. The camera focuses on the ugliest examples of modern British architecture it can find—factories, tenement skyscrapers, freeway on-ramps—so that when we finally see the flat and bleak English landscape outside his car window, it looks pastoral by comparison. Newscasts blather on about crime and obscenity raids, until our expressionless antihero turns on some Kraftwerk in boredom. It’s all very esque, stylishly alienated and dispassionate. Once the journey gets afoot, Petit livens up the scenario (not a difficult task) with a few chance encounters: a Scottish army deserter, Sting, and a plot detour with a German woman (Wenders’ ex-wife Kreuzer) fruitlessly searching for the daughter her ex-husband has taken to England. Robert’s car deteriorates throughout the journey, until it ends up stalled out at a quarry by a beach. We never learn exactly what happened to the brother.

I’m sure Radio On accurately captures the mood of anomie among leftists in 1979 England. As a time capsule, it has some value beyond the soundtrack and cinematography. But the aggressively disenchanted pallor makes it a hard sell for people who weren’t there. Despite the Bowie tunes, most of the movie informed by long, ambiguous-but-sad silences.

Radio On was a surprise late 2021 release from Vinegar Syndrome (via partner label Fun City). The movie has a small but loyal British following, and among the surprising number of extras on the disc (including a Kier-La Janisse commentary track and multiple interviews with director Petit) is “Radio On (Remix),” a 24-minute experimental film composed of altered Radio On footage with a schizophrenic audio mix and lines of poetry appearing in subtitles. I’m personally much fonder of this abstract, dreamlike approach to the material, but it’s difficult to say how it would work as a standalone piece for someone with no knowledge of the feature.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an enigmatic and offbeat walk on the wild side.”–Rob Aldam, Backseat Mafia (Blu-ray)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE FIFTH THORACIC VERTEBRA (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Park Syeyoung

FEATURING: Jung Sumin, Haam Seokyoung, Moon Hyein, Jihyeon Park, Seungki Jung, Oh Jeongyeon

PLOT: Mold formed in widely traveled mattress gains awareness and, eventually, a humanoid form.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: “Cinema-verité meets monster movie, wherein grand philosophical questions about the nature of the self and awareness are explored by way of a creepy-tendriled fungus with a hunger for human spine.” I’m hoping that’s sufficient.

COMMENTSThe Fifth Thoracic Vertebra is art-house-mumble-core, showcasing slices of Korean life as a mattress travels from the center of Seoul to the city’s periphery, and even further, up toward North Korea. Slow dialogue, poignant encounters, life and death, aborted love, and… an increasingly sentient mold. This hook in Park Syeyoung’s feature debut allows for the mundane to sidle up to the grandly philosophic, thanks to the collective organism that seeks to learn about its milieu through the consumption of its victims’ fifth thoracic vertebrae.

The director (who is also the screenwriter) has a knack for dialogue, and has devised a method to gather authentic performances from his cast. He remarked in the Fantasia Festival post-screening Q&A that all the male actors were musicians—ones, incidentally, he refused to allow to compose the film score—with no acting ability. By accumulating various takes of their scenes, just like his film’s mold-y protagonist accumulates expansions of itself, he was able to play around with social tonality, grabbing the best of the various performances to graft on to his film as he grew it from the ground up. Without the hyper-realism of the ambient action (or, often the case, inaction), The Fifth… could easily have sputtered to a clunky collapse under the weight of its pretenses.

But it doesn’t. The cognizantial arc of his mold begins slowly; the film even begins some couple of hundred days before its “birth.” Once the mold forms, it seems to breathe. Sound design carries a great deal of weight, as the audience hears the strange crackling, moaning, and creaking-breathing (?) of this odd main character, and there is a sensation of complete acceptance when, at last, its first knobby tendril emerges from the slickened crack in the mattress, reaches toward its victim… and snatches a section of their back-bone. As the days fly by, the mold begins to learn the rudiments of speech, and we eventually reach a poignant scene where a dying woman leaves a letter to her daughter in its charge (its mattress-home having now traveled quite far). The letter is never delivered, but becomes part of the organism’s sentience.

The closing sequence is both touching and quietly monumental. A reviewer pal of mine described The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra as “boring”; and while I must admit to it being a slow and quiet movie, I found it much more of a peaceful, contemplative film—one that organically grew into near-cosmic significance. Immediately upon viewing, it occurred to me that Park Syeyoung’s debut film would be a fitting B-side to ‘s debut; addressing similar themes, albeit from a different bio-organic perspective, the meditative nature of The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra is the perfect come-down from Tetsuo‘s frenzied hyperactivity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Syeyoung Park’s imaginative debut feature blends the body horror of early David Cronenberg with the witty eccentricity of Quentin Dupleux and adds its own flavours of melancholy and wistfulness… {Park]  teases out the bizarre in the everyday and finds beauty in moments of horror. His first feature may be unpolished but it shows a good deal of unsettling originality.”–Allan Hunter, Screen Daily (festival screening)

CAPSULE: THE LONG WALK (2019)

Bor Mi Vanh Chark

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Mattie Do

FEATURING: Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy, Por Silatsa, Noutnapha Soydara, Vilouna Phetmany, Chanthamone Inoudome

PLOT: In the remote Laotian countryside, an old hermit and a young boy are united by the fact that only they can see the mute woman wandering the long dusty road to the nearest village.

Still from The Long Walk (2019)

COMMENTS: We recommend not reading the official synopsis for The Long Walk posted on the IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, or the distributor’s own website, as it seems to carelessly give away major plot points. Perhaps the promoters thought there was no other way to get American viewers interested in a Laotian movie, most of which takes place on a barren dirt road, than by giving away the main twist. Regardless, this is a movie you will likely enjoy more the less you know going in.

The movie opens on an older man (a haunted Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) stripping motorbike parts in the jungle, just off the path. He leaves an orange at a roadside shrine, then checks the time on his wrist—not on his wristwatch, on his actual flesh, in one of the few indications that this movie takes place in the future. Selling his scrap in town, he learns that the local noodle shop owner is sick and demented and on her last legs. He lives alone in an elevated hut where he vapes, brews strange teas, and ritualistically tends items in a cabinet shrine, including a female figurine. The locals believe he can talk to the spirits of the dead.

The action then shifts to follow a young boy living on a farm. He prefers exploring the jungle to hoeing the fields; his mildly abusive father thinks he’s lazy and good for nothing, but he’s devoted to his mother, who sells the family’s vegetables at a roadside stand. The family is barely getting by, the mother is ill, and there is no money for medicine. The boy makes a macabre discovery in the woods, and soon after he begins seeing a pretty but mute woman standing in the road. The old hermit from the previous paragraph sees her, too; and soon she brings them together, as the nature of the old man’s shamanic practice comes clear.

The Long Walk is set in a world where government-issued microchips coexist with ghosts; a world like our own but with a touch of sci-fi shamanism. The movie slips into its liminal spaces—life and afterlife, past and present, and through genres like drama and horror—gracefully, but also sometimes perplexingly. As with all time travel tales, it traffics in paradox; the movie’s morality, too, is far from black and white. It takes some patience to tease out basic plot elements, but clues and new developments are laid out at regular enough intervals that my attention rarely wandered off the dusty path that winds its way through the decades. The third act takes a potentially controversial turn towards horror; it provides a resolution to a subplot about the daughter of the noodle shop owner, which was otherwise a welcome digression from the main plotline, but has the disadvantage of forcing our protagonist into a heel turn that feels a bit too arbitrary and severe. Still, this decision adds to the mystery and complexity of the story and feeds into its theme about the unpredictable effects of good intentions, as it leads us to an inflammatory ironic conclusion.

The background Buddhism, and the presence of the mundane and the mystical in the same frame, will put viewers in mind of Thailand’s , although Do’s work is a more plot-driven and less audaciously poetic. I found the ambiguously emotional payoff to be well worth the effort, but the impatient should beware: the title does not lie, it is indeed a long walk.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Ghost stories — and especially those aimed at art house audiences — might benefit from a little ambiguity and a certain poetic strangeness. But it’s a problem when the story becomes nearly impossible to follow for long stretches of time.”–Boyd van Hoeij, The Hollywood Reporter (festival screening)