Tag Archives: Coming of Age

366 UNDERGROUND: MANGOSHAKE (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Terry Chiu

FEATURING: Matias Rittatore, Jessica McKnight, Ian Sheldon, Philip Silverstein, many others

PLOT: A group of young people hang out in the suburbs running a stand that sells mango shakes, until a rival sets up a stand selling chow mein.

Still from Mangoshake (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s too far down the production ladder. If you make a movie for $0, it needs to be ceaselessly and relentlessly weird to make our List. That’s not to say you shouldn’t see Mangoshake if you get the chance, of course, but realize it’s aimed primarily at no-budget movie fans rather than weird movie fans.

COMMENTS: The most important exchange of dialogue comes at the end. Mangoshake entrepreneur Ian (occasionally pronounced “Juan”) confesses to Spaceboy (the nerd who obsessively documents this lazy summer in his diary, hoping to make sense of it all) that his entire enterprise has not been about building a sense of community, as he publicly claimed, but about getting laid. (How giving away free mango shakes was going to get him laid is one of the many absurdities Mangoshake lays out without explanation). “All of this was just to try to have sex?,” objects Spaceboy. “No, I won’t accept that, it was more than that.” Ian responds, “It’s not. It’s just straight up not.” He pauses. “Look, if it was more than that for you, no one can take that away from you.”

With dozens of thinly-sketched characters (actors clearly in their twenties but acting like teenagers), Mangoshake is a nearly plotless experiment evoking a certain summer slacker ennui through comic vignettes that err towards the goofy side of absurd. It’s sort of a sunny combination of Clerks and that sets out to subvert teen cliches. The comedy is uneven, often relying on gambits like characters suddenly wearing fake beards and reciting dialogue in funny accents, or pitching dumb movie ideas—“clowns crushed by gravity!”—resulting in mock hilarity. There is a whiny monologue from a discarded pizza crust and a pretty good musical number, though. The best bit, which involves a black market fruit dealer named Nancy, could stand alone as a Youtube short. It ends with a food fight where a couple of the actors sort of break character and crack up, but they just keep rolling.

Filming on unforgiving equipment one step above an iPhone, Chiu uses simple techniques—jump cuts, subtitles, upside-down shots, and a crashing-skateboard cam—in an attempt to create visual interest in the bland suburban setting. As is often the case with low budget productions, sound can be an issue, making it hard to make out some dialogue. As a joke, one shy character is always subtitled, but the whole film might benefit from close-captioning. Adding to the proudly amateur aesthetic, the actors have such blank deliveries that you sometimes wonder if Chiu is trying to translate into mumblecore. There are a few moments of genuine melancholy sincerity as the characters awkwardly attempt, and generally fail, to connect with each other on a deeper level than just “hanging out.”

Mangoshake is the DIY coming-of-age-film for people who hate coming-of-age films, a mission it announces up front. Mainly, it seems to be cynical about the possibility of romance. People don’t hook up, or they don’t hook up meaningfully, or they don’t hook up with the person they want to hook up with. The nerd doesn’t get the hot girl, but neither does the douchebag; the hot girl doesn’t get the nice guy, or the cool guy either. The lesbians do seem to do OK. The best thing about Mangoshake may be that it might convince you that you can make your own movie, which would be in line with the director’s intent. From his “mission statement”: “The philosophy is taking nobody-filmmaking to a raw place that can challenge the inclusivity of the cinematic language, and to communicate a story that have-nots could’ve made and could connect with. Regardless of if one thinks this works or not, what could matter more is if it gets across what it could represent. If it could be an honest expression of nobodies putting together a feature-length movie that holds resonance.” Call it a nonifesto for “nobody-filmmaking.”

Mangoshake plays tomorrow at Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn; its fate thereafter is unknown.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a surrealist comedy of late-summer ennui… This breed of absurdism, however, will only appeal to an audience who will truly appreciate the pleasure of surrendering yourself to the most primitive and instinctual of delights…”–Gary Shannon, The Young Folks (festival screening)

CAPSULE: THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM GRACE WITH THE SEA (1976)

DIRECTED BY: Lewis John Carlino

FEATURING: Jonathan Kahn, Sarah Miles, , Earl Rhodes

PLOT: A young boy growing up in a seaside English town with his widowed mother is involved in a cultlike group of juvenile delinquents, but idolizes a passing sailor who woos his mom… for a while.

Still from The Sailor Who Eell from Grace with the Sea (1976)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is one of the all-time great titles, but definitely not one of the all-time weirdest movies. What little weirdness it has is more of a function of its unfashionable (some might say “clumsy”) use of symbolic narrative than anything else.

COMMENTS: Lewis John Carlino (screenwriter of Seconds) adapted The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea from a novel by oddball nationalist Japanese writer . Some critics argue that, in changing the location from Japan to Wales, the movie fails to achieve greatness because it can’t translate Mishima’s specifically Japanese cultural concerns to screen.

I disagree. I think The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea fails to achieve greatness on its own merits. Specifically, the movie is poorly paced, losing rather than gaining steam as it goes on, and the acting is flat and uninspired. Sarah Miles does best as the young widow hiding her simmering sexuality under the cover of prim country Victorianism (although her mournful masturbation scene in front of her dead husband’s portrait is risible). Kris Kristofferson is mainly there as a manly prop for the sex scenes, a duty he performs well enough. The main acting issue is one that brings down many coming-of-age films: the reliance on young, untrained actors in crucial roles. Star Jonathan Kahn, whose only other credits were literary parts in BBC juvenile television adaptations, is just serviceable: he has the look of a conflicted adolescent, but he can’t channel the surging hormonal rage needed here. Earl Rhodes, as “Chief,” is more of an obstacle to success. He gives theatrical speeches that sound like a schoolboy’s self-serving impressions of Nietzsche (“morality is nothing more than a set of rules adults have invented to protect themselves.”) He always sounds like he’s reading from a script and never develops the sinister charisma necessary for us to buy him as a mini-Manson; and if we can’t believe he seduces his schoolboy chums into bizarre acts of anti-adult rebellion (like a ritual involving a poor kitty), the delicate credibility of the plot falls apart.

Hints of perversity and sex can’t overcome the movie’s over-solemnity (the tone they were going for was “haunting,” but it’s a near miss). Sailor‘s lack of spark is a shame, because the film raises a multitude of interesting topics: youthful rebellion, missing father figures, Oedipal desire, the foundations of morality, the lure of romanticism, the tension between pure ideology and real life. While there is a certain fateful irony in the conclusion (optimistically promoted as “startling” in the tagline), it’s deliberately telegraphed so that there is no suspense. A few indicia of derangement–dissonant baroque music played on prepared piano during the boy’s memory of seeing his nude mother, a stuttering montage as the boys prepare their final act–give the movie the slightest touch of formal strangeness.

There is one major support for the interpretation that the film is a failure of translation. Mishima likely intended the novel as an allegory for Japan’s postwar situation, and viewed the boys as the upcoming generation of heroes and patriots who would overthrow Western domination of “pure” Japanese culture. In Carlino’s hands, these brats are misguided monsters, Lords of the Flies refugees, who make the parents into tragic victims of their misguided fanaticism. Obviously, that’s a seismic thematic shift—but again, I don’t think that’s the reason the movie fails to hit its mark. With more vital direction, they could have pulled the reversal off.

At the moment The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is free to watch on Tubi.tv (no way to know if that will still be true by the time you read this, naturally).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has an intriguing effect by virtue of its very strangeness, with its uneasy combination of a sex-starved widow and twisted kids making for, at the very least, a memorable experience, if not entirely for the right reasons.”–Graem Clark, The Spinning Image

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

CAPSULE: THE BOOK OF BIRDIE (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Elizabeth E. Schuch

FEATURING: Ilirida Memedovski, Kitty Fenn, Suzan Crowley, Kathryn Browning

PLOT: A young woman is brought to a convent to protect her from an unspecified danger. There, she explores both her emerging spirituality and womanhood.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Schuch’s movie relies heavily on a theological flavor of “magic realism”. While it explores various fringe topics—(clerical) sisterhood, puberty, paganism, and suicide—using a variety of stylish techniques, it doesn’t push boundaries as far as it should, and ultimately doesn’t adequately explore the various narrative avenues it goes down.

COMMENTS: Director Elizabeth Shuch cannot be accused of lacking in ideas:

  • The intersection between Femininity and Christianity.
  • The intersection between Christianity and Paganism.
  • The intersection between Paganism and Femininity.
  • Coming of age, first love, and suicide.

Throughout The Book of Birdie, Shuch addresses all these topics while maintaining a precarious narrative thread.

Our story begins in a dying convent consisting of a dozen or so nuns. Young Birdie (Ilirida Memedovski) has been brought there for the protection and (ostensible) comfort that a life of wholesome religiosity may bring. Birdie integrates with her new wards slowly, but surely, while also making acquaintance (then friendship, then love) with Julia, the groundkeeper’s daughter. Birdie learns prayers, attends services, and sees the ghosts of two dead nuns haunting the convent. After staining her bedding with a heavy menstrual flow, things become slightly more unreal.

Arthouse film techniques abound. There are extended shots of Birdie’s entrancingly dark eyes. Ephemeral lighting abounds inside the compound while a bleak sun saturates the outdoors. Animations of symbolic imagery are seamlessly integrated. While the camera-work and editing veer close to heavy-handedness, they never fall into parody. The nun characters—both alive and dead—help to keep the film grounded in the reality of this hollowed-out haven. One enthusiastic nun in particular stands out. She confides her aspirations to Birdie: “I knew Jesus was the only man for me when I had my First Communion. I felt the wafer sizzle in my mouth and I felt him calling to me. Everything I’ve done since then has been to prepare me for a spiritual life. I want to be the best.” Unfortunately, it is Birdie who experiences the transcendence that this nun strives for. The cause (effect?) of this brings me to a needful observation.

This film has a lot of blood in it: a lot of menstrual blood. It shows up in specks around the chapel, it shows up in trails, and it shows up in the small vials that Birdie fills with it and, on occasion, drinks from. She also crafts what I can only describe as a “fetus fetish” from porridge and stores it in vinegar. This entity comes to life on occasion, as does a statue of Christ—as do her reproductive organs, which we see escaping her body and flying off, like an angel. There is a mountain of symbolism of which, with my limited catechism, I can only understand fleeting hints.

The important question, though, is whether this works as a movie. To that I say, “Yes… mostly.” The performances are all tip-top and the limited scenery provides a real sense of a derelict haven. And the narrative moves from one point to the next, with a beginning, middle, and end. However, I can’t help but feel that this movie is like an empty Chinese puzzle box: fascinating to watch unfold, but ultimately yielding nothing. An ambiguously tragic life is explored with ambiguously theological symbols bringing us to an ambiguous, tragic ending. All spirit and no flesh, perhaps?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird, glittery, feminine fever dream.”–Lindsay Pugh, Woman in Revolt (festival screening)

351. BIRDBOY: THE FORGOTTEN CHILDREN (2015)

Psiconautas, los Niños Olvidados; AKA Psyconauts: The Forgotten Children

“Our passions are the gift of nature, and the main spring of human actions; without them, man would be like a bird without wings, or a ship without sails.”–“The Parlour Companion” (1818)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Voices of Andrea Alzuri, Félix Arcarazo, Eba Ojanguren. Josu Cubero; Lauren Weintraub, Jake Paque, Sofia Bryant, Dean Flanagan (English dub)

PLOT: This fable takes place on an island inhabited by anthropomorphic animals years after a nuclear disaster has devastated the ecology and economy. Dinky, an adolescent mouse, plans to run away with her friends, hoping to leave the island and find a better life. She desperately wants her boyfriend Birdboy to accompany her, but the feral child is addicted to pills and too absorbed in his own problems to join the small crew.

Still from Birdboy, The Forgotten Children (2015)

BACKGROUND:

  • Birdboy: The Forgotten Children began life as a graphic novel by Alberto Vázquez. Pedro Rivera, a screenwriter who had directed one animated feature at that time, read the book and got in contact with Vázquez to see if he would be interested in adapting the book into a movie. The two made the short “Birdboy” in 2011 as a proof of concept, then were able to raise funds for the feature film.
  • Psiconautas won best animated film at Spain’s 2016 Goya awards but it was not a financial success, grossing a mere $13,000 in Spain and only $52,000 worldwide.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: When Birdboy’s adolescent brain finally breaks and his horde of shadowy bat demons break loose, flocking up his lighthouse lair and coalescing into a dark dragon with glowing red eyes and a vicious pincer beak.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Abused alarm clock; adopted luchador pup; addicted nose spider

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Birdboy is the story of cute, drug-addicted baby animals stranded on a dystopian, post-apocalyptic island. It’s got talking alarm clocks, piggy banks, and inflatable ducks, all of whom have tragic stories to tell. It’s not afraid to give a puppy a rifle, or put one in a skintight leather mask. But for all of this sarcastic nihilism, it’s not a black comedy, but an empathetic fable and an immersive spectacle, told through beautiful and often psychedelic animation.


Trailer for Birdboy: The Forgotten Children

COMMENTS: Birdboy is, honestly, a pretty easy sell. It’s got cute Continue reading 351. BIRDBOY: THE FORGOTTEN CHILDREN (2015)

CAPSULE: MADELINE’S MADELINE (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING: Helena Howard, Molly Parker, 

PLOT: A troubled 16-year old girl escapes her neurotic home life by immersing herself in an experimental theater troupe.

Still from Madleine's Madeline (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Madeline is a promising and passionate shot across the bow of the timid indie drama scene, a collection of typical film festival narrative preoccupations—dysfunctional family dynamics, reflective meditations on the trials of the working artist—blurred by an experimental film lens. But for all its oddball virtues, it’s of limited appeal, and I suspect it finds more favor with dramaheads looking for a weird-ish diversion from the ordinary than with weirdophiles looking for a little drama.

COMMENTS: Josephine Decker has been blipping on the edges of our radar here at 366, with two arty/weird low-budget erotic films (the lesbian-themed Butter on the Latch and randy farmhand tale Thou Wast Mild and Lovely) that we didn’t have the opportunity to check out, as well as an installment in the dream anthology collective:unconscious that we did. Madeline’s Madeline, her Sundance-selected third feature film, is her breakout project, a confirmation that our interest was warranted.

Madeline’s Madeline paints a portrait of three women. Madeline is a 16-year old with a natural gift for acting, an increasing impatience with her virginity, and a slowly-disclosed history of mental illness. She misbehaves like a normal teenager—sometimes going too far—but the seriousness of her condition is also somewhat suspect, since it’s mainly suggested by her neurotic mother Regina, who comes off as a bit of a hysterical hypochondriac. Naturally, these two clash. Madeline’s awkward attempts at erotic expression (she shows a potential beau her departed father’s VHS porn collection) are more frustrating than fulfilling, but the girl finds meaning in her work with an experimental theater troupe—the type of outfit that performs endless improvisations where the cast pretends to be cats or sea turtles or explores dream work and never gets around to rehearsing an actual play. Director Evangeline, our third female character, is working on a script to feature Madeline, but it never develops due to her endless digressions and exercises—experiments that sometimes become uncomfortably intimate. Madeline sees Evangeline as the mother she wished she had—and her feelings might be returned—but their relationship is complicated by mutual jealousy, and by Evangeline’s egotism and subtle authoritarianism. If she thinks she can constrain a force of nature like Madeline, however, the director is sadly mistaken: the teen proves advanced beyond her years at psychological manipulation.

The briefly outlined story above is delivered in a series of vignettes; some deliberately confusing, while others wouldn’t seem out of place in Ladybird. The scenes are often broken up by disorienting, psychotic montages: the lens wavers in and out of focus, shot from odd angles while the camera focuses on chins or foreheads or forks during conversations. The score is mostly a capella chanting of the tribal variety; very Greenwich Villagey, just like Evangeline’s bohemian brand of performance art theater. The entire procedure develops into a kind of Cubist filmmaking: individual scenes depict facets of the multilayered story, with details often obscured or muddled, but the whole reveals a complete portrait of its subject, seen from multiple angles. The ending is a psychedelic free-for-all encapsulating Madeline’s rebellion against Evangeline’s artistic authority: the girl stages a mutiny and turns rehearsal into an avant-garde haunted house and choreographed manifesto of independence.

Exemplary acting from the primary trio gives Madeline a leg up on similar experiments. July pushes her eccentric persona in a new, less precious direction. Parker’s character is far more complex than she first appears: the troupe defers to her as its de facto leader, but she’s more dilettante than genius, and her insecurities gradually reveal weaknesses that Madeline instinctively exploits. We never get a handle on which of the three women is actually the craziest—although Madeline at least had the excuse of youth and adolescent turmoil to soften her madness. 19-year old Helena Howard—who plays everything from a confused teen to a kitty cat to her own mother—makes everything watchable, grounding the sometimes flighty project and showing breakout star potential. Unfortunately, this experimental movie is destined to be little-seen, but producers and casting directors will take note of Howard. Like Madeline, her talent is too great to confine itself to underground niche movies: expect to see her cast in bigger projects soon. But we hope she’ll remember, and maybe even return to, her weird, arty roots years from now when she’s a big star.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The opening of the film tells us that what we are about to watch is just a metaphor, not the actual thing. That comes up several times the weirder things get… Madeline’s Madeline was not for me but I’m sure there’s someone out there for it.”–Fred Topel, We Live Entertainment

319. THE COMPANY OF WOLVES (1984)

“The great majority of symbols in the dream are sex symbols.”–Sigmund Freud, “Symbolism in the Dream,” A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sarah Patterson, Angela Lansbury, Micha Bergese, Tusse Silberg,

PLOT: An adolescent girl lies in her bed, dreaming feverishly. In her dream, she lives in a medieval town menaced by wolves, with a grandmother who tells her frightful stories about werewolves and warns her to “stay on the path.” One day, she is traveling through the woods to her grandmother’s house, and she meets a dashing older man on the road…

Still from The Company of Wolves (1984)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film is based on Angela Carter’s three “Little Red Riding Hood”-inspired werewolf stories collected in “The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories.” In 1980 Carter adapted these stories into a radio play titled “The Company of Wolves,” which became the basis for her screenplay collaboration with director Neil Jordan. She published her version of the screenplay, which differs slightly from the filmed version (due to the fact that some sequences proved too costly to shoot) in the collection “The Curious Room.”
  • Jordan says that the stories-within-stories structure was inspired by The Saragossa Manuscript (1965).
  • Other than the wraparound sequences, the entire movie was filmed on a soundstage.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a movie where men (repeatedly) turn into wolves, it’s surprising that the most startling image occurs in a quiet moment. Rosaleen climbs a tree, finds a stork’s nest, and finds a mirror and a vial of lipstick nestled alongside the eggs. She applies the lipstick, looks in the mirror, and the eggs crack open to reveal tiny human figurines.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Egg babies; wolves at a wedding; Angela Lansbury’s ceramic head

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An adolescent girl is lost in a fever dream inhabited by suave beast men and mysterious symbols that both frighten and thrill her. Angela Carter’s Freudian spin on fairy tales takes the sanitized version of Little Red Riding Hood and gives it fangs.

Original trailer for The Company of Wolves

COMMENTS: Werewolves are some of humanity’s oldest supernatural foils, mentioned in Petronius’ “Satyricon” in the first century Continue reading 319. THE COMPANY OF WOLVES (1984)

CAPSULE: KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Minami Takayama, Rei Sakuma, Kappei Yamaguchi; , , Matthew Lawrence (Disney English dub)

PLOT: As a rite of passage, a friendly 13-year old witch sets up a delivery service in a village.

Still from Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It doesn’t have quite the mania or kiddie surrealism of Miyazaki’s wilder works like Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. We’re covering this one for the sake of Miyazki completeness.

COMMENTS: Kiki’s Delivery Service takes place in Anywhere, Europe—it might be in France, or Italy, or Austria—at a nonspecific time in the 20th century (there are automobiles, dirigibles, telephones, and black and white televisions, but no airplanes). In this alternate world, witches are real, and carry over some of the iconography of folklore, like flying broomsticks and black cat familiars. However, in Kiki, witches are accepted with none of the negative connotations of Häxan—they aren’t suspected of eating children by the light of the full moon. Rather “resident witches” act as public servants, one per town. According to the rules of witchcraft, smartly delivered in the film’s first twenty minutes or so, when a witch turns thirteen she leaves home and serves an apprenticeship. She has to find her own unique eldritch talent, which might be fortune telling, or potion brewing. Kiki’s quest to find out where she fits in this odd society is the engine of this coming-of-age tale (with a chaste, comical boyfriend subplot serving as bonus content).

Miyazaki, the son of an airplane manufacturing magnate whose extensive aviation-themed back catalog suggests he’s a frustrated pilot, creates some of his greatest flying scenes here. The freedom of the highly maneuverable broomstick allows him to “film” not only soaring green vistas, but vertigo-inducing shots from below and scenes of Kiki racing through traffic, levitating just inches above the pavement. The climax is a thrilling rescue as Kiki attempts to pilot an uncooperative broomstick, which keeps plunging when it’s supposed to hover. The excitement of the flying sequences helps win over boys who might be skeptical of a story revolving around a girl who sets up a small business.

I usually like, or am at least neutral about, Disney’s choice of dub actors, but I confess Kirsten Dunst’s voiceover was a little too bubble-gummy for me this time out. At least VO vet Phil Hartman, as the gently sarcastic cat Jiji (with just a touch of in his delivery), is excellent, stealing his scenes. Dunst’s performance is a minuscule nitpick anyway, and certainly nothing to overshadow Kiki‘s achievements as superior children’s entertainment. It’s not a transcendent example of its genre like Spirited Away, but Miyazaki’s craft and imagination never disappoint. Kiki delivers.

In 2017 Gkids got the rights to Disney’s Studio Ghibli catalog and began re-releasing the features on Blu-ray. This edition is almost identical to Disney’s 2014 Blu, right down to the extra features—but the one improvement that devoted anime fans will appreciate is the inclusion of an optional set of literal English subtitles, as opposed to Disney’s “dubtitles” (which often changed the original meaning slightly to make the story more accessible to Western audiences).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… top-drawer kiddie fare both for fans of the exotic and for mainstream family auds.”–Ken Eisner, Variety (contemporaneous)