Tag Archives: Arthouse

CAPSULE: WILL-O’-THE-WISP (2022)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Mauro da Costa, André Cabral

PLOT: Concerned about the environment, the prince of Portugal chooses to become a volunteer fireman and falls in love with a co-worker.

Still from Will-o'-the-wisp (2022)

COMMENTS: There was a 1974 softcore sex spoof called 2069: A Sex Odyssey. Pretty hilarious title, huh? Will-o’-the-Wisp opens on almost the same joke, conspicuously setting its flash-forward prologue in 2069. This is not a promising opening for a supposedly serious art film.

A lot of the insubstantial Will-o’-the-Wisp comes off exactly as on-the-nose as that opening joke. Among the film’s incompatible parts is a general dedication to environmentalism (which motivates its protagonist to semi-abdicate his royal commission to volunteer as a firefighter). We know of Alfredo’s convictions because he interrupts family dinner to read Greta Thunberg’s 2019 U.N. speech off his phone, speaking directly to the camera. So when it comes time for a sex scene, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that it goes unambiguously explicit. The film contains a lot of hoses, and some actual hosing, but almost no firefighting—although Rodrigues shows, in a CPR-training scene, that he is perfectly capable of conveying eroticism indirectly. The finale features a singer substituting the word “falo” (phallus) for “fado” (folk song) in her dirge. Subtlety isn’t always a virtue, but with a project as wispy as this—even at 67 minutes, its plot feels stretched-out—a little could have gone a long way.

Will-o’-the-Wisp flits as lightly over its surrealism as it does every other element (with the exception of male full-frontal nudity, which, honestly, is the film’s major theme and raison d’être). Muscly, nude firemen re-enact various classical paintings (humorously), and the final funeral scene is suitably strange, with a pair of female mourners played by gossipy, ambiguously-gendered ladies. Perhaps most notably, the film is proffered as a “musical fantasia,” with pauses in the action for song-and-dances. The slim runtime only accomodates three numbers, however: an a capella ode to trees sung by schoolchildren, the closing funeral fado, and the centerpiece, an athletically choreographed fireman’s techno-ballet where the protagonist gets spun around like one of those twirling signs by his future lover.

The musical element makes Will-o’-the-Wisp resemble the queer absurdity of Rodrigues’ To Die Like a Man (2009) more than the ambitious surrealism of his Ornithologist. Wisp lacks the emotional heft of that 2009 effort, however, because it doesn’t spend enough time developing Alfredo and Alfonso’s characters into much more than romantic pawns playing their assigned roles. This phantasm of a film feels dashed-off, an under-budgeted pandemic-era project made to keep busy while waiting for something bigger to come down the pike. That said, other critics were more forgiving: 97% positive on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of publication, in fact. One would presume Wisp would also play well with a niche gay art-house audience, while lacking crossover potential. (I will point out that gay-friendly art-house patrons are the only ones likely to pick it for a screening, however; and, returning to the Tomatoes numbers, the paltry 32% audience score suggests that even they weren’t impressed. I suppose this is more of a critics’ movie: other critics, that is.)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…hilarious and yet still heartfelt, extremely weird but wonderful…”–Lee Jutton, Film Inquiry (festival screening)

CAPSULE: TOMMY GUNS (2022)

Nação Valente

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DIRECTED BY: Carlos Conceição

FEATURING: João Arrais, Gustavo Sumpta, Anabela Moreira

PLOT: A group of Portuguese soldiers living an isolated existence find themselves haunted by Angolan ghosts.

Still from Tommy Guns (2022)

COMMENTS: It’s difficult to discuss Tommy Guns‘ plot for fear of giving too much away. It’s not the appearance of ghosts/zombies near the end of the film that causes an issue; there is another, even less expected third act twist to contend with. We’re safe in saying that the film opens in Angola in 1974, one year before it gained independence from Portugal, as a title card announces that fact in the first minute. The movie then proceeds with what is—slight spoiler here—a thirty minute prologue showing the death of an innocent victim of the ongoing violence, a burial in which an elder warns that the corpse’s spirit will rest uneasily, and an odd riverbank encounter between a lone Portuguese soldier and a local woman that ends with him eating her necklace.

Afterwards, we switch focus to a group of young Portuguese soldiers, a company of eight men led by a strict and ruthless Colonel, who spend their days in some remote outpost doing not much of anything. The film was leisurely, yet confusing, throughout the prologue; it slows down even further in this segment. Although the troop chases, and catches, a traitor, and there is one brief ghastly apparition, relatively little happens throughout the middle of the film: it’s an accurate depiction of the drudgery of military life, endless training and waiting and little action. Things finally heat up when the Colonel decides to import a stripper for the restless (and horny) young men, leading to a third act payoff that’s fairly satisfying. Connections to the opening are ambiguous, but potentially meaningful (a quote from Horace could be significant).

Conceição’s film, only his second feature length effort, is ambitiously structured and deals with Portuguese colonialism in a way that will be most meaningful to those well-versed in this history. The writer/director was born in Angola during the conflict detailed here, moved to Portugal as a teenager, and has traveled back and forth between the two countries since, so this particular slice of colonial history holds personal significance to him. Many events are symbolic: I suspect the encounter between the soldier and the Angolan native represents Portugal’s treatment of her colony, and the idea of the dead returning to trouble the living has obvious significance. Nonetheless, the movie’s awkward pacing makes it difficult for the director’s ideas to penetrate the malaise: little happens for long stretches, causing your mind to wander. Some characters (like the white nun from the opening) are superfluous, mere local color; more economical storytelling would have helped the message land harder. Some critics have complained about the disjointed nature of the script, but the film doesn’t really switch genres as violently as advertised; the early war drama and the later zombie element feel of the same somber piece. In fact, despite the appearance of the walking dead, it would be difficult to categorize the film as “horror” in any meaningful sense: it seldom strays from the path of magical realism it sets for itself. The resulting experiment feels weighty and worthwhile, but, unfortunately, not always engaging.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Conceição has created a smart, strange film that is disjointed because colonialism is a thing of disjointed desires, histories, and deaths.”–Noah Berlatsky, The Chicago Reader (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: L’ANGE (1982)

AKA The Angel

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DIRECTED BY: Patrick Bokanowski

FEATURING: Jacques Faure, Martine Couture, Jean-Marie Bon, Rita Renoir

PLOT: A swordsman parries and thrusts with a suspended doll; a servant brings a tray of food to a handless man; a group of librarians catalog books, and then rescue a woman from a box; figures attempt to ascend a vast, steep staircase to the heavens; and a number of other actions are captured in shadow and sepia and are repeated multiple times to demonstrate variance and nuance.

Still from L'Ange (1982)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Baseball fans calculate a statistic called similarity scores to compare players, often used to determine if a given player would sit comfortably alongside other legends. The greatest players, like Willie Mays or Babe Ruth, aren’t truly similar to anyone, but the ones who come within sniffing distance are all Hall of Famers. So it goes with L’Ange. There isn’t really anything like it, but it sits comfortably on the shelf alongside such subversive classics as Meshes of the Afternoon and Dog Star Man. Every image has been created specifically for the film, but it has heavy echoes of the found-footage assembly of Decasia or the random documentary of Koyaanisqatsi. Michel Chion, writing for Cahiers du cinema at the time of L’Ange’s debut at Cannes, described the film as “A 2001 produced under the same conditions as Eraserhead.” Whatever L’Ange may be, it keeps good company with some of the most legendarily strange movies ever made.

COMMENTS: In the video to one of my all-time favorite songs, They Might Be Giants’ transcendent “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” director Adam Bernstein plays with the theme of light to reflect the tunes narrator, a nightlight. In one particularly memorable image, John Linnell (the accordion-playing half of the duo) is captured in a light that repeatedly fades out only to spring back to life. After a moment, it becomes clear that Linnell himself is responsible for the light show; a dimmer switch on the arm of his chair allows him to control the illumination, and he is mischievously turning the lights out on his own performance.

I assume that this moment popped into my head while watching Patrick Bokanowski’s challenging feature because of the frequent interplay of light and dark. But I also contend that a similar spirit of mischief is woven throughout this movie. As harsh sepia-toned beams burst through the center of the screen only to be replaced with sequences that mimic the stage but repeat at random angles and speeds, you quickly begin to suspect that Bokanowski is playing with his audience, like a cat with a mouse.

Having made an impression with his first two short films, La Femme qui se poudre and Déjeuner du matin, he clearly decided that a feature Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: L’ANGE (1982)

HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN: RARITIES COLLECTION

Recommended

Severin Films 5-disc set.

I’ve sung Kier-la Janisse’s praises earlier here about the “All the Haunts Be Ours” folk-horror boxset that she curated for Severin Films. I assume a good many of the people reading this are familiar with Janisse already from her book “House of Psychotic Women,” published in 2012. 2022, the book’s 10-year anniversary, saw the publication of an updated edition (new films appear in the book’s appendix) and this boxset of four movies. Though much smaller, this release is equal in quality to “Haunts,” if perhaps more niche-focused: all of the films featured could fall under the heading of “Eurocult.” This is the first American Blu-ray release of each.

Identikit (1974), directed by Giuseppe Patroni Griffi and based on Muriel Spark’s novel “The Driver’s Seat,” stars as Lise, a somewhat prickly woman on a trip from London to Rome on her way to meet up with a man. The film jumps around in time as Lise is apparently being pursued by the police, and we see the reactions of people who have encountered her and their interrogations. With incidents of terrorist activity in the background, it seems that Lise is on a mission that will end up in dire consequences—which indeed it does, but not all how one might expect.

Identikit comes at the end of what has been referred to as Taylor’s career decline, a period that included offbeat projects like Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), Boom! (1968), Secret Ceremony (1968), and Night Watch (1973), all of which were thoroughly roasted by critics at the time and no more successful with audiences. Those films are being reevaluated and are now considered to be among some of Taylor’s best work. Identikit stands proudly amongst that body of work. Lise is abrasive and disagreeable to most she encounters: service people; airport security (note that the movie was shot one year after airport security measures were put into place, which look quaint and lax compared to current times); and toxic men like Bill (Ian Bannen), a buffoon who thinks he’s just her type, and Carlo (Guido Mannari), a mechanic who gives her a ride to a hotel and attempts to rape her. But Lise shows some wistful vulnerability with an older woman () with whom she goes shopping, a man she thinks might be the person she’s looking for ( in a cameo), and the man who is the one she’s searching for. As the movie skips around in time, Lise proves to be a totally enigmatic character, even as she achieves her goal.

The audio commentary by Millie De Chirico (late of TCM Continue reading HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN: RARITIES COLLECTION

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: THE CEMENT GARDEN (1993)

DIRECTED BY: Andrew Birkin

FEATURING: Andrew Robertson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alice Coulthard, Ned Birkin, Sinéad Cusack, Jochen Horst

PLOT: Four siblings experience the sudden death of their parents and bury the mother in the basement to hide her death from the authorities; the oldest siblings, Julie and Jack, take on the role of parents, while developing an inappropriate romantic attraction.

Still from The Cement Garden (1993)

COMMENTS: One of the many borderline taboo jokes throughout the run of the TV show “Arrested Development” was the forbidden attraction of young George Michael Bluth to his cousin Maeby. Circumstances were constantly pushing him to pursue his urges, even while they were reinforcing how wrong it was. One of the more sinister temptations was a notorious French film called Les Cousins Dangereux, which George Michael admired for its European sensibilities. If the writers of “Arrested Development” drew direct inspiration from a screening of The Cement Garden, it would absolutely track. It would highlight the uncertainty and discomfort of his incestuous longings in precisely the same way, and central figure Jack is virtually a role model for his sitcom successor.

The art-house incest flick is common enough to be its own trope, so much so that Eugene Vasiliev compiled his own list of leading examples of the genre for this site; a list which includes The Cement Garden in particular. But even in this august company, he notes that there’s a certain paint-by-numbers element to The Cement Garden’s approach to the subject, saying that the film is so stereotypical that it “can be stored in an iron safe in the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in the suburbs of Paris.” This particular tale’s literary origins (adapted from one of Ian McEwan’s provocative early Gothic novels) lift it out of the rut, and the utter isolation of the family makes this more of a take on Lord of the Flies by way of Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. But the artfully prolonged tug-of-war between agony and ecstasy, that’s straight out of the playbook.

Our focus is on Jack, a painfully immature young man who resents the responsibilities forced upon him. (He is arguably, in a literary sense, responsible for his father’s death through his deliberate inattention.) Given the chance to control his own fate, he gives up. He stops bathing, preferring to cavort in the rain in the nude. He plays with insects. He reads a fantasy adventure called “Voyage to Oblivion.” And he finds himself increasingly in thrall to his older sister. If we’re to believe Jack’s POV, Julie is constantly putting the quandary directly in his face: performing a skirt-dropping headstand on his birthday, asking him to apply suntan lotion to her naked back, and flaunting her maturity by dating an older man. It’s a depressingly limiting view, making Julie into a kind of intentional vixen rather than pointing out the entire family’s damaged emotional state. The younger siblings aren’t doing much better, after all, with Sue composing angry diary entries addressed to her mother while youngest brother Tom takes to sleeping in a crib, drinking from a baby bottle, and dressing in girl’s clothes with a blonde wig. (Julie’s speech justifying the choice is the source of the lengthy sample that begins the Madonna single “What It Feels Like For a Girl.”)

A cement garden, of course, is a place where nothing can grow but weeds, and this family has been stopped in its tracks. Given their surroundings – their crumbling house is surrounded by the rubble of other homes torn down for new development – it’s arguable that the kids were doomed long before their parents were lost. But the note of quiet triumph that ends the film is starkly at odds with the circumstances we’ve seen. The Cement Garden is the tale of young people going nowhere, and not wise or worldly enough to see the road ahead.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A very odd film… The Cement Garden is hardly for everyone (the heavy twin themes of sibling incest and death are right up front), but it’s a gorgeous mood piece, rife with tension and promise in a surreal manner you rarely get to see.” – Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by feraltorte, who recalled “It was my first weird movie. It has weird movie mainstay Charlottle Gainsbourg.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)