Tag Archives: Arthouse

CAPSULE: SUBURBAN BIRDS (2018)

Jiao qu de niao

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DIRECTED BY: Sheng Qiu

FEATURING: Mason Lee, Zihan Gong

PLOT: A team of engineers investigate the sudden appearance of sinkholes which are forcing them to condemn buildings; the story changes to follow a group of suburban elementary schoolers, with parallels developing between the two tales.

Still from Suburban Birds (2018)

COMMENTS: If Suburban Birds is any indication, the modern Chinese art-house movement will be founded in the spirit of . Cinematography will be privileged over narrative, hazy mysticism will pervade, and timelines will go out of focus as one or more histories coexist at once.

Suburban Birds begins slowly, develops slowly, and ends with two men falling asleep. We start off following Han, part of a four man surveying team investigating unstable buildings in a Chinese city. After a while, Han enters an evacuated school and finds a diary. He reads it, and we then begin following the story of a boy—also named Han—and his school chums. They hunt for birds eggs, engage in pre-adolescent flirtation, play war games with toy guns, and eventually trek off on a long journey to find one of their number who didn’t show up to school that day. This section of the film takes up an inconclusive hour in the middle of the film, and is almost entirely realistic. The temptation is to assume that young Han and old Han are the same character at different times of their lives, but the story steadfastly refuses to commit to that interpretation, and in fact several points undermine it. When we return to old Han—seen awakening from a nap—the movie seems less connected to reality than before, although the dissonances are always subtle. Motifs such as haircuts, a riddle, and a stray dog recur in both stories, and it’s possible to draw parallels between Han’s companions in each hemisphere. It ends with a coda that brings in two new characters, out on a birdwatching trip in the same forest where young Han once roamed.

What it all signifies is anyone’s guess; it’s impossible to tease out a moral from the odd story, which never develops a consistent tone or obvious theme. It does features good, if restrained, acting; the children, especially, are a believable ensemble, without a weak link. The cinematography is superior, with intelligent zooms and pans highlighting important characters and spatial relationships. Memorable visuals include a shot of tufts of grass that change color from lavender to red to green, and a dreamlike interlude where the engineers examine “clues” from inside separate plexiglass enclosures, each lit in a different neon lighting scheme. Suburban Birds may be enjoyed by fans of slow, obliquely mystical cinema in the mold of and the aforementioned Bi Gan, but I found it took far too long in developing its enigmas, which didn’t seem worth the journey.

Suburban Birds got a very limited U.S. release in 2019; a DVD/Blu-ray showed up in 2020, and it can be found for rental on some of the smaller, art-house oriented streaming services.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Qiu shows remarkable facility as he patiently adds layer upon layer to a mystery that wants to stay one. This is not a puzzle film, but its ends are elusive.”–Glenn Kenny, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: KINETTA (2005)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: Giorgos Lanthimos

FEATURING: Evangelia Randou, Aris Servetalis, Costas Xikominos

PLOT: “At a Greek hotel in the off-season, a chamber maid, a man obsessed with BMWs, and a photo-store clerk attempt to film and photograph various badly reenacted struggles between a man and a woman.

COMMENTS: If I am reviewing a film I enjoy or respect (or better yet, both), I am often apprehensive when I sit down to write about it. This is because, despite having written hundreds of reviews by now, I am always fearful I won’t find my “window” into the movie: that first sentence, or first idea, that opens up the rest of my thoughts as I write. If I am reviewing a film that I did not care for, this is not a problem, as there’s usually at least one withering put-down that acts as my window. With Kinetta, I was spoiled for choices. A high point in the movie came early on when I was relieved to find that I wouldn’t, as I was fearing, have to make use of “Closed Caption” subtitles: it turned out the film already had standard subtitles pre-rigged in the stream. This resolved, I watched and took notes; to my right, my cat, Goose, did the sensible thing and slept soundly through the entire film.

Whoever provided the summary on IMDb (which I lifted straight from the site, for the second time only), is a very well-spoken person. That is exactly what Kinetta is “about”, and no amount of “walk time” padding or shaky-cam “fight” footage can stop my train of thought from slapping quotations around everything in a vain attempt to convey how mind-numbingly pointless this cinematic exercise is. Of the three leads, the least charismatic (the “BMW”-fanboy, who may be a cop [?]) gets by far and away the most dialogue. Cameraman, with beard, has perhaps half a dozen short lines, but comes across as the only reasonable person of the bunch. The scene in which he saves the hotel maid character from a drug overdose makes for the only worthwhile stretch of movie—right in the final minutes. But well before that point, a question came unbidden to my mind, “Why don’t the MST3K or RiffTrax people make better use of their skills by tearing art-house garbage to pieces?”

I dove into this review because it was put out there by Management toward the top of the to-do pile. Though I’ve seen one of the director’s more recent movies (with other 366ers, no less), I was totally unfamiliar with his name. So I say to you, Mr. Lanthimos, as I am sure you are reading a review of your (kind of) feature debut from fifteen years ago: good job on overcoming the naysayers. While the likes of The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Lobster prove you know how to make really good movies, Kinetta stands as proof-in-celluloid that you can make a really horrible one if you put your mind to it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Viewing ‘Kinetta’ with the benefit of hindsight, you can see inklings of visual and staging ideas that Lanthimos would explore more fully later on… But time hasn’t made it more than a cryptic curiosity.”–Ben Kenigsberg, The New York Times (2019 revival)

CAPSULE: TOMMASO (2019)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Cristina Chiriac

PLOT: An aging American director living in Rome goes to AA meetings and struggles to relate to his much younger Moldavian wife.

Still from Tommaso (2019)

COMMENTS: It may be inevitable that as Abel Ferrara has aged and sobered up, he’s started to make self-consciously serious movies aimed at art houses, as opposed to the wild and exploitative hits like Ms. 45 (1981) and Bad Lieutenant (1992) that originally brought him cult fame. While his movies once graced grindhouses, prior to Tommaso Ferrara was last seen at the Venice Film Festival pushing a prestige biopic about fellow bad-boy director .

Now, he’s back with a navel-gazing domestic drama that’s heavy on scenes of walking though Roman streets, Italian lessons, squabbling spouses, and Alcoholics Anonymous testimonials. There is no doubt that Tommaso is Ferrara: an ex-alcoholic movie director living in Rome with a much younger foreign wife and daughter (who are played by Ferrara’s real-life wife and daughter). We also see him working on a movie screenplay (which, from the Eskimos and bears, one guesses is destined to become the soon-to-be-released Siberia). Ferrara wisely chooses the great Willem Dafoe as his stand-in: even when he’s cheating, or thinking of cheating, or having grandiose messianic fantasies, Dafoe is weighty and likable. He finds the legitimate human confusion and suffering that makes us empathize with every indulgence. (Although he’s awesome as always here, I still wish Dafoe would take fewer roles playing elderly filmmakers who can’t distinguish fantasy from reality and more roles playing foul-mouthed and flatulent 19th century lighthouse keepers).

The numerous fantasy segments scattered throughout this self-searching autobiographical character study give it the esque credibility required in the subgenre. Some of them nakedly illustrate Tommaso’s insecurities. He imagines his child in danger, his wife unfaithful. Others are more inscrutable: a Kafkaesque detention dream, or Tommaso literally pulling out his own heart while sitting around a squatters’ campfire. The finale is imaginary and catalysimic. But no matter their subject, the hallucinations do not seriously impede on the movie’s basic plotlessnesses, its focus on marital discord and sarcastic self-reflection.

Tommaso’s anxiety about whether his wife will seek comfort in the arms of someone closer to her own age, and his struggle with his own controlling nature—even with yoga and breathing exercises, he’s awfully high-strung and quick to jealous anger—form the essence of his internal conflict. Although his wife Nikki can occasionally seem a little bit immature (“I want to do what I want, when I want…”), Tommaso consistently comes off much worse. At one point, he spends his entire turn at an AA meeting complaining about his wife; the next speaker empathizes with him, but also offers some wisdom: “this program teaches me to stick to my side of the street… whenever I’m pointing a finger, I’ve got to look at myself.” The message is lost on Tommaso, however, who continues his bossy behavior, and flirts with other women while imagining Nikki is cheating on him.

This unflattering portrayal, of course, is Ferrara’s way of working out his own issues and anxieties on film—a public confessional that is as brave as it is uncomfortable for the viewer. After watching Tomasso, I feel like I know Ferrara intimately—more intimately than I should know a stranger.  On the other hand, I keep thinking about an AA speech where Tommaso describes those long-ago times when he directed indie movies by day and smoked crack and got pounded in the face by jealous boyfriends by night—and kept thinking how I wanted to see that memoir, instead of the one I was currently watching.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Much of the film feels as though it is going through the movements of a surrealist film, though lacking the dedication. It wants to be surrealist, giving a message in the symbolism of the film, though teasing audiences with a cohesive narrative that never truly arrives.”–Stephanie Archer, Film Inquiry (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT (2018)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Sioban Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, , Jeremy Davies

PLOT: Jack (Dillon), an architect–and prolific serial killer–recounts several examples of his “work” and philosophy as Verge (Ganz) leads him on a journey to Hell.

COMMENTS: Due to controversial films like The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark, and Antichrist, among others, Lars von Trier was already considered ‘problematic’ even before his infamous press faux pas at Cannes at the time of Melancholia‘s release. So it’s an interesting conundrum that, in light of his behavior over the years, his work is intellectually engaging and appears (my impression) to have a strong moral center at its core. Jack is much the same. At its Cannes premiere, it gained notoriety when over a hundred audience members walked out during the screening, as well as for for the ten minute standing ovation it received from the remaining audience when it ended.

Originally conceived by von Trier with co-writer Jenle Hallund as an eight-part television series, Jack is a treatise on serial killers and the culture of fascination regarding them. Jack sees murder as an art and himself as amongst the greatest of artists, as he argues to Verge (i.e. Virgil, the poet of “The Aeneid” and guide from “The Divine Comedy”) on their journey. He justifies himself and his acts by pointing  up examples in Nature (the Tyger and the Lamb; the “noble rot”) and Art (poetry of Blake, and the films of one Lars VonTrier).

Despite adopting the non de plume “Mr. Sophistication,” Jack, as portrayed Matt Dillon, is not the Hannibal Lecter type of cultured romantic one ends up liking despite his horrible acts. The film makes clear that Jack is a liar (not a good liar either), and not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, but gets away with his horrible acts because he uses his entitlement and privilege to full advantage. People overlook his behavior until it’s far too late. He acts so obnoxiously that some who might bring him to justice get annoyed and brush him off.  He’s abetted by the naiveté  and obliviousness of his victims, and everyone else; as he yells out of an intended victim’s apartment window, “Nobody wants to help!”

Despite this “success,” Jack’s flaws eventually catch up with him. For all of his lofty pretensions as an “artist” and creator, Jack is unable to complete any sort of life-positive project. His attempts at building a house for himself end in a Sisyphean cycle of frustration; the only structure he succeeds at is a grisly sculpture made from the corpses of his victims, which serves as his literal entrance into Hell. Despite Jack’s spirited arguments and defenses on their journey, Verge isn’t buying any of Jack’s b.s. As he remarks, he’s “heard it all and there’s very little that would surprise him” at this point. Jack’s ultimate fate, likewise, is no surprise at all, though he still thinks there’s a chance he can beat the House. He learns the hard way that the House always wins.

The House that Jack Built is a bleak look at an empty soul in an empty world. It’s also very funny, among the darkest of dark comedies.

Scream Factory released Jack in a 2-disc Blu-ray set in early 2020. It includes the standard theatrical cut, and the unrated cut that played in selected theaters for one night only. Extras includes von Trier’s introduction to the unrated cut and an interview with the director conducted by University of Copenhagen Associate Professor Peter Schepelern.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As the film progresses into its last stretches, it proves itself to be bizarrely satisfying, recontextualizing itself into something much grander in sadness and scope.”–Matt Cipolla, Film Monthly (Blu-ray)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: TIME OF MOULTING (2020)

Fellwechselzeit

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

DIRECTED BY: Sabrina Mertens

FEATURING: Zelda Espenschied, Miriam Schiweck, Freya Kreutzkam

PLOT: Stephanie grows up with her eccentric, sickly mother and her “present-but-absent” father, becoming a troubled teenager.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Teutonic-degrees of mise-en-scène fastidious, tormentingly oblique dialogue, and an unflinching obsession with medium shots make Time of Moulting far too enigmatic and unnerving to fall into mere “arthouse”-levels of weirdness.

COMMENTS: The stifling warmth in this room and the ominous thunder and lightning outside is an appropriate environment for writing this review of Sabrina Mertens’ directorial debut. Time of Moulting is dark, oppressive, and ominous. It’s a slender movie, merely eighty minutes long, but every slice of it—dozens of fixed-camera, “photograph”-style cuts—drip a slow build of tension, like a viscous ooze that is gradually filling a dust-covered bottle. By the finish, I was torn between scratching my head in confusion and hugging myself in despair.

Stephanie (played by a charming Zelda Espenschied as a young child, and a surly Miriam Schiweck “tens years later”) is raised by two parents who have no business having children. The mother (Freya Kreutzkam, never far from despair-induced collapse) suffers from an unspecified medical condition—one both mental and physical, probably. The father makes it clear early on he has no patience for his daughter. Young Stephanie takes solace in exploring the mysteries hidden away in the increasingly untidy house, particularly the trunk full of her grandfather’s butcher’s equipment; older Stephanie takes far more sinister “comfort” in the tools found therein.

By IMDb’s count, there are 57 vignettes adding up to a cryptic whole. By my count, there are only two close-ups: one shot of false teeth creepily snapping shut, and one of liver curling while being fried upon a skillet. The recurrence of meat—always raw—is never a good sign in movies. In Time of Moulting it takes on a more abstract but equally sinister imagery. Young Stephanie arranges two slices of something almost origami-like on a plate; later in life she takes to drawing some truly grisly scenes of death, and even cannibalism.

But Time of Moulting’s horror elements take a back seat to the oppressive formalism of the whole affair, lingering in the many shadows with a quietly sadistic grin. I have never felt so unnerved by medium shots. You see everything going on in the scene, but that only makes the goings-on eerily detached. By this point in the review, I’ve realized that I am not communicating the movie’s aura as well as I would like; but that just reaffirms my position that Time of Moulting is a truly strange take on horror, art-house, and melodrama.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film is subtle to the point that we lose many of the narrative points that lead to the character feeling how she feels and doing what she does. It comes across as unqualified and strangely out of place as the film plods towards its underwhelming finale..” -Hunter Heilman, Elements of Madness (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PIGSTY (1969)

Porcile

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DIRECTED BY: Pier Paolo Pasolini

FEATURING: , Jean-Pierre Léaud, Alberto Lionello, ,

PLOT: In contemporary Germany, a son of an industrialist discusses abstract social principles with his fiancée as his father plans a merger with an old, pre-war associate; in medieval Europe, a young cannibal forms a gang of bandits before eventually being trapped by the local militia.

Still from Pigsty (porcile) 1969

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Pigsty qualifies not only for efficiency’s sake: as two narratives, it would be like getting two Apocrypha titles for the price of one. But each of the narrative strains is an oddity in its own right: one, an ambiguous morality tale stuffed with art-house flourishes; the other, an obvious morality tale stuffed with macabre social commentary.

COMMENTS: There is only one moment of near-tenderness in Pigsty, during an encounter between a young, unnamed scavenger and a young, unnamed militiaman on a blasted hillside in Medieval Europe. The militiaman has been straggling behind the main procession of armed soldiers, whistling as he idles. The two men awkwardly encounter each other, exchange glances, and for the briefest moment one might believe that something romantic might ensue—but almost immediately they fire their weapons, fight with their swords, and one kills, and eats, the other. Pigsty‘s true tenor is shown, not least when the cannibal throws the decapitated head of the guardsman into an steaming thermal vent on the mountainside that overlooks the lifeless clearing. Sacrifice.

Two parallel narratives intertwine as counterpoints, but each reinforces the other’s message. Modern life, with all its trappings (as emphasized by the fiancée character when she opens the contemporary story with the line, “We’re two, rich bourgeois, Julian”), turns out to be no less violent—and no less focused on survival—than life in the Dark Ages. While Pasolini uses wholly visual storytelling for the historical half, he dissects 1960s society via endless conversations between allegorical stereotypes. Julian, the scion of a major industrial concern, finds himself caught between two worlds: his fiancée’s conformist radicalism, and his father’s conformist classism; he retreats from what he sees as a mindless game of consumerist conquest by frequenting the pigsty on the family’s estate. What of love? His fiancée challenges him early on, “You kissed me!” He responds, “I also scratch myself.”

The focus quickly moves from the young man  to the father. Though wheelchair-bound, he derives plenty of joie de vivre from his business, his harp, and many, many conversations about the nature of class and society—finding the hilarity of it all from the side opposite his son. The patriarch is an ex-Nazi in the prosperous half of a divided Germany; his recollections of his political past consist exclusively of “humorous” anecdotes and memories. To illustrate this point—overtly, to the point of heavy-handedness—Pasolini presents this smirking cripple in a bedtime scene where he wishes he had been able to have his caricature drawn by George Grosz, with a Brechtian tune to back it up.

These characters without principle—or, at best, woefully misguided principles—are a direct contrast to the filmmaker. Pasolini was a complex man, but he was filled with disdain for the establishment (specifically, any of them). His views can be distilled as “anti-authoritarian”. There are countless references to parse: the allure of the pigsty, the undercurrent of homoeroticism in the historical narrative, and the nebulous confession of the scavenger (“I killed my father, I ate human flesh, and I quiver with joy”), with its religious overtones. But Pasolini isn’t a subtle filmmaker; even if any given piece of the story he’s telling is veiled in arcane symbolism, his message is always crystal clear.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an exquisitely revolting satire…”–Time Out

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: YUMEJI (1991)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Tomoko Mariya, , Masumi Miyazaki, Reona Hirota

PLOT: A bohemian poet and painter travels to Kanagawa to wait for his ailing girlfriend, only to fall for an alluring widow while he’s there.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Seijun Suzuki, a defiantly unconventional filmmaker with a career’s worth of bizarre films already under his belt, threw himself into Yumeji like he was making his magnum opus of weirdness. There’s blood painted on to the screen, life coming alive as art, and opaque references to slaughterhouses and blood—the last of which would seem to have little to do with the film’s subject. For an artfully bizarre take on an era filled with strange contradictions and perversions, who better than Seijun Suzuki to take you there?

COMMENTS: Takehisa Yumeji was a real-life painter, whose individualist lifestyle and era-defining paintings made him an icon of Japan’s Taisho era (1914-26). The name Yumeji contains the Japanese word for “dream,” so it’s fitting that Yumeji begins with a dream sequence in tribute to its namesake. But if you were expecting Seijun Suzuki to make a conventional biopic, think again. Suzuki used the names of some of the real women in Yumeji’s life, including Hikono (Masumi Miyazaki) and Oyo (Reona Hirota), who seem to have been portrayed in keeping with their real-life counterparts. Apart from these details, Suzuki paid more attention to Yumeji’s artistic side, imagining his romantic escapades and artistic concepts manifested as life.

As in Kagero-za, Suzuki centers the film on an adulterous love triangle, with a mysteriously powerful husband constantly plotting the protagonist’s murder, even though he never gets around to actually carrying it out. However, not one to repeat himself, Suzuki upped the ante here by adding a second adulterous love triangle, wherein the cuckolded husband is said to have killed his rival by throwing him down the drainage pipe at the local slaughterhouse. The killer then hides out in the mountains, evading a relentless police search and creeping around with a scythe in a none too subtle evocation of the Grim Reaper. 

Always one to dabble in surrealism, Suzuki gave in to his urges completely in Yumeji, throwing in enough hallucinatory imagery to eclipse any other film in his storied career. Paintings appear on wooden posts when tapped, a woman is cooked in a huge soup kettle by a group of singing women, and a blond madman proposes a duel while standing next to a hedge made of bloody animal carcasses, later emerging from a lake covered in blood himself. Yumeji (Kenji Sawada) also suffers from a clash of personalities which eventually lead to an identity crisis reminiscent of The Blood of a Poet: he is confronted by multiple versions of himself, all of whom accuse him of being a fraud. His morbid paranoia, his womanizing lust, his poetic thought process—all come together to inform the mood of the film and create something which feels much more like a waking dream than a biographical story.

The two previous films in Suzuki’s Taisho Trilogy (Zigeunerweisen and Kagero-za) each have their fair share of beautiful imagery, but Yumeji is overflowing with countless compositions that are framed to mimic Japanese paintings of the past. At numerous points throughout, paint is even overlaid onto the frame, including a notable scene in which a bright yellow boat nearly capsizes in a torrent of cow’s blood that is dabbed in red blobs along the bottom of the frame. Yumeji is also more erotically-charged than its predecessors, with an earthy sense of sexuality and framings that look like they could have been pin-ups from1920s Tokyo, together with levels of nudity and lewd behavior that contradict the popular image of historical films as stuffy and mannered visions of the past.

It’s fitting that as Seijun Suzuki’s career progressed, his work became more artistically-focused and surreal. His early films, with their painterly attention to color and visual design, bear the marks of an unconventional artist who just happened to be tasked with making B-movies about thugs and prostitutes. In the Taisho Trilogy, Suzuki finally had free reign to make movies that eschewed storytelling and audience expectations in favor of surreal imagery, irreverent reflections on Japanese culture and history, and fractured narratives that often featured elements of the supernatural. Curiously, Yumeji is the least supernatural of the three films, yet the weirdest overall. Like the pornographic kimono that features in its nightmarish finale, it’s a period piece that represents the culture of its era while also adding surrealism, eroticism and mystery into its historical framework. Thanks to Arrow Films, these three little known films by one of the great Japanese surrealist masters are now ripe to be rediscovered in all of their bizarre, experimental glory.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By the time the film was completed, the gonzo filmmaker had so thoroughly dispensed with narrative sanity and even basic filmic grammar that whether or not the subtitles are on becomes irrelevant.” – Fernando F. Croce, Slant Magazine