Tag Archives: Dreamlike

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Sion Sono

FEATURING: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Bill Mosley, Nick Cassavetes

PLOT: By order of “the Governor”, a nabbed robber must infiltrate the Ghostland to rescue the Governor’s grand-daughter.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Directed by Sion Sono, featuring Nicolas Cage.

COMMENTS: “They helped me because I am radioactive.”

This epic line is delivered, epically, by Nicolas Cage, standing atop a grand stairway beneath a massive clock, his right arm shattered, his left testicle likewise. He stands before a crowd of downtrodden souls. Amongst them is the bookish Enoch, volume of Wuthering Heights in hand, as well as the gaunt undertaker who collects souls. Watching from the periphery is Ratman and his Ratmen, a crew of thieving mechanics. Bernice, chalk-limbed and with obsidian-black eyebrows, begins a chant of rebellion. And so, the prisoners of the Ghostland rally, before marching on Samurai Town to depose the evil Governor.

Forgive me if I am telephoning in this review, but I was up until almost two o’clock this morning and arose shortly after six. Though rendering me useless for almost anything else, this primed me perfectly for Sion Sono’s latest, Prisoners of the Ghostland. Having snaked its way through the festival circuit all this past year (thank you very much, Covid, for keeping me from covering this at Fantasia…), this oddity has finally hit a handful of screens as well as pay-to-stream services. Under-slept and over-caffeinated, I watched, intermittently overcome with awe, perplexion, and hearty guffaws.

“They helped me because I am radioactive.” Even within the confines of this film, the line makes no sense. There is a permeating sense that something deeper is going on here: the growing flashbacks of a robbery gone wrong, the strange drawl-stilted speechifying by the white-suited baddie the Governor, the analogue slide show—narrated by a Greek chorus of the dregs of humanity—recounting the horrific crash between a truck full of convicts and a truck full of nuclear waste. There are moments of surreal whimsy, as when a hail of bullets cracks open a gumball dispenser, its candy-coated contents clattering in slow-motion throughout the carnage; or when Nicolas Cage’s “Hero” catches a burnt-out football helmet and busts out his gravedigger audition for Hamlet. Yes, the minds behind this story aimed for a much-too-muchness, half hitting the mark, half sputtering into the fizzly “What the?” of miscalibration.

I should be slapping the “Recommended” tag on this; I should have had my “Must See!” entreaty swatted aside by more reasonably-minded site administrators. However, as much as I enjoyed watching Prisoners of the Ghostland, it suffers from one or more of the following: too much incoherency, not enough incoherency, too much crazy, and not enough crazy. Nicolas Cage, as always, delivers; but his too much is only mostly enough. Its Sergeo Leoneciousness borders on Jodorowskity, but never quite makes the final leap. As a movie, Prisoners falls short, constituting merely a wacky, weird exercise in eccentricity and nuclear-samurai-symbolism; but in memory, I have little doubt it shall blossom into a strange patchwork of giddily campy memories of a Hero, played by Nicolas Cage, whose force of will makes me believe that he is, indeed, radioactive.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“No movie with Nicolas Cage, directed by the wonderfully weird Japanese director Sion Sono, should be this taxing, drawn out, and plainly boring…  Cage and Sono are truly kindred nutcases: they are artists who do not question themselves, and while they have a sense of humor stranger than we can comprehend, they are too sincere for irony. But ‘Prisoners of the Ghostland’ is truly just a beginning; a false start to what should, and still could be one of the greatest cinematic collaborations since sound met motion.”–Nick Allen, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

11*. THE WOLF HOUSE (2018)

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La casa lobo

“Like in dreams, where one person can assimilate the attributes of another, the story and characters of the film take on different materialities. All of the changes in the house, characters and objects emphasize the permanent under-construction reality of the film.”–from the director’s statement to The Wolf House

DIRECTED BY: Joaquín Cociña, Cristóbal León

FEATURING: Voices of Amalia Kassai, Rainer Krause

PLOT: A prologue purports to be a documentary on a Chilean commune founded by Germans; we are told that the film that follows has been restored from their vaults. Those reels tell the story of Maria, a girl who strays from their community and finds herself hiding from a wolf at a mysterious house in the woods. There, she finds and nurtures two piglets, who gradually turn human.

Still from The Wolf House (Las Casa Lobo) (2018)

BACKGROUND:

  • The scenario was inspired by Colonia Dignidad, a colony founded by ex-Nazis in Chile. The colony was often described as a cult and was insulated from its neighbors by barbed-wire fences. From 1961 to 1996 it was led by Paul Schäfer, a refugee wanted for child molestation in West Germany. The colony became the subject of dark rumors among the locals, rumors which were validated after escapees told tales of systematic child abuse inside the compound. The cult survived by allying with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who used the colony as a detention and torture camp.
  • Cociña and León had worked together, and sometimes separately, on a number of award-winning animated shorts before tackling this, their first feature film. The Wolf House took five years to complete.
  • Cociña and León took their sets on the road and worked on The Wolf House at various museums across the world, where visitors watched as they created the animation.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Due to the sheer volume and continually shifting nature of The Wolf House‘s liquid visuals, picking a single image is an imposing task. We will go with the grayscale eyeball that materializes on the house’s wall like a sketch drawn by an invisible pencil, complete with a semitransparent eyelid, a pulsating pupil, and the ability to shake the furniture with its glance.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Pigs with human hands; magic Aryan honey

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Wolf House‘s experimental animation traps us in a constantly shifting nightmare dollhouse: Maria merges into and out of the walls, conjures human features for her pigs, and even the paintings on the walls can’t keep their shape for more than a second or two. The fascist-fairy tale tone is dreamily calm, and inescapably horrific.


Original trailer for The Wolf House

COMMENTS: It’s probably enlightening to have some background Continue reading 11*. THE WOLF HOUSE (2018)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE WOLF HOUSE (2018)

La casa lobo

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Joaquín Cociña, Cristóbal León

FEATURING: Voices of Amalia Kassai, Rainer Krause

PLOT: Maria flees her community to avoid punishment and finds an abandoned house; fearing the wolf outside, she sequesters herself with two pigs which she raises as her children.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: As an experimental stop-motion animation, The Wolf House already has a leg-up against most competition. It becomes a lock for candidacy through its sinister storytelling framework, sociopolitical overtones, and the fact that you watch its settings and inhabitants literally being built up and broken down right before your eyes as its story unfolds.

COMMENTS: Everyone knows that idle hands are the Devil’s workshop; Joaquín Cociña’s and Cristóbal León’s are, on the other hand, a two-man workshop revealing the Devil’s evil. Stop-motion is undoubtedly the most time-consuming filmmaking method; but sometimes, as in The Wolf House, it is the most appropriate. Lacking both real-time film’s quick capture of reality and the infinite malleability of “pure” animation’s ink and lines, stop-motion is a demanding mistress, but one that allows for the uncanniest uncanny valleys and the most “other” other-worldliness. Cociña and León hand-assemble, hand-craft, and hand-paint a dark fairy tale amalgam that itself masks a far darker period in history.

After World War II, a number of prominent German officials fled Europe and cropped up in various points South American. One of those places was the “Colonia Dignidad,” a religious cult compound in Chile. For years, tales of hardship and child abuse drifted through its fortified walls, and the framing of The Wolf House is taken from this period. Presented as a counter-propaganda piece to dispel rumors of a “horrible secret” about this truly “isolated and pure” colony of agrarians, The Wolf House informs the viewer that the film they are about to see was found in the society’s vaults (lovingly “restored” by none other than Cociña and León). The story it tells, in its morphing and cryptic way, concerns a young woman fleeing a harsh punishment meted out by her village’s elders, but eventually learning that the parents know best.

The framing “documentary” is creepily reassuring, easing tonally into the movie proper. For that, it harnesses a variety of stop-motion techniques. Beyond the simplest form (move figure, shoot camera), there’s also “live-painting” animation. A young woman, Maria, seeks shelter in an abandoned house. Upon entering, the walls form in front of the camera, and decorations—bookshelves, clocks, framed pictures—appear and move toward their designated positions as Maria looks around. A woman’s figure eventually appears in a doorway (or mirror?) before branching from the walls in the form of a papier mâché figurine, who eventually finds two pigs—which, through a game she narrates, eventually morph into human children.

The Wolf House is only seventy-five minutes, about ten of which are credits, with ten more being the “documentary” bookends. But it contains countless chilling allusions. As a paneled window is painted on the wall, it ever so briefly appears as a swastika before the rest of the lines are filled in. There’s a mystical honey that causes children who consume it to change from mestizos into blonde Teutonic ideals (the surrounding documentary advertises the German commune’s prized honey). Maria’s fairy tale within the fairy tale concerns animals fleeing into the ground to escape “the wolf”, and a magical tree thanking her for leading them there; in reality, this alludes to the mass graves on the Colonia Dignidad’s grounds. With stop-motion, Cociña and León find that perfect abutment between reality and nightmare; with The Wolf House, they find the perfect abutment between parable and horror.

The Wolf House is currently streamable from distributor KimStim’s website at first-run rental prices ($12 for 26 hours); we’ll update this review when the availability changes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If an Orwellian fable were to be visualized by a surrealist in the vein of Salvador Dali, the result would look and feel something like ‘The Wolf House’… this shape-shifting, trippy nightmare from filmmakers Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña startles and terrifies in equal measure, while putting forth an uncompromising examination of fascism in a way that only animation can do.”–Tomris Laffly, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (2018)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jue Huang, Wei Tang

PLOT: A man searches for a woman from his past, who may be nothing but a dream.

Still from Long Day's Journey into Night (2018)

COMMENTS: Bi Gan creates shots of intricate logic inside narratives of unfathomable illogic. Technically speaking, Long Day’s Journey into Night (which has nothing to do with Eugene O’Neill’s play) is another feat of long-take virtuosity; think of films like Russian Ark or Birdman (which it approaches, but does not exceed). Scored to Chinese blues and shot on slick neon streets, the film serves up its slow, dreamy story with an intoxicating noirish melancholy.

The first half of Long Journey jumps back and forth in time, and possibly between reality and fantasy. Bi deliberately withholds narrative information: for example, the protagonist, Luo Hongwu, begins describing his search for one “Zuo Hongyuan” before telling us who he is or why he wants to find him. Repeated motifs—karaoke singing, a disreputable old friend named Wildcat, pomelo fruit, a green book, a spinning house—float around, hints of plot that tantalize more than they explain. The result is like the fractured storytelling of Mulholland Drive, but more subdued and dramatic, and with the key to untangling the story (if there is one) buried even deeper inside the labyrinthine narrative. It’s an exercise in how close you can toe the line of incoherence and still have a structure that functions in the same way as a plot.

The second half begins when Luo visits a movie theater to pass time. The line between the film’s two chapters clearly marked when he puts his 3-D glasses on, and the film pops out into its extra dimension. What follows is the most explicitly surreal parts of the film; Luo has drifted off, and meets a boy who may be his never-born son and a woman who just may be the one he has been seeking. The camerawork will astound you.

Long Day’s Journey into Night is the ultra-rare art-house film released to theaters in 3-D (although only the second half is in that format). At home, I watched it in regular old 2-D (although it is available on a 3-D Blu-ray for those few with enhanced players). I doubt I missed out on much. It feels like a little bit of a gimmick; the main justifications are to create a clear dividing point between the movie’s hemispheres, and to make you feel like you are going on a journey with the protagonist. In China, Journey was marketed as a big-deal blockbuster romance and released to theaters on New Year’s Day, China’s preeminent holiday. This counts as a master prank in my book.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The only thing more surreal than the experience of going to see Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is perhaps the movie itself.”–Alex Lei, Film Inquiry (contemporaneous)

CHANNEL 366: UNDONE (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Hisko Hulsing

FEATURING: , Bob Odenkirk, Angelique Cabral, Constance Marie, Siddharth Dhananjay

PLOT: Following a car accident, underachiever Alma discovers that… well, I’ll let her tell you: “I’m seeing my dead father because of my big ventricles, and he’s training me to travel in time so I can save him from being murdered.”

Still from "Undone" (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As we’ve previously discussed, TV is very much its own thing, and we probably won’t be inducting any ongoing series into the pantheon of weirdness. But Undone has legit weird chops, and deserves to be part of the conversation about the joys of entertainment that departs from the norm.

COMMENTS: Fans of s Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly 1 will be familiar with the technique of rotoscoping, in which filmed footage is traced, colored, and enhanced, combining the benefits of actor-driven performance and real-world situations with the flights of fancy and reality-bending leaps of animation. It can be used to make animation seem more real (see almost any Disney fairy tale), but it can be used to arguably greater effect by lending surrealism and surprise to a concrete, grounded universe. You could conceivably throw animated techniques into a live-action movie (Speed Racer comes to mind), but when everything appears to be drawn, you’re actually starting out with a more comfortable sense of uncertainty.

This makes rotoscoped animation an almost perfect medium for a story that pertains to an examination of the mind and the possibility of mental illness. Undone, the tale of a young woman who is either developing extraordinary powers or is steadily losing her grip, may open with perfectly ordinary, even bland scenes of a heat-blanched San Antonio, but the slight wobble of the frame, the distinct outline of people and things, the trappings of animation start us off in an unsteady place. So when we go into Alma’s brain and watch those things start to deconstruct, we’re fully prepared for the journey, even as it leads us into stranger places. Form follows function.

“Undone” is the creation of Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, two veterans of the popular, traditionally animated “BoJack Horseman.” That show has itself played with linear time and the inner workings of thought and memory (in particular, two episodes–“Downer Ending” and “Time’s Arrow”–seem to have directly informed this new series), but “Undone” has none of the blatant satire or absurdity of its predecessor. It manages to feel both more real and dreamier.

Like another streaming series I’ve reviewed recently, a lot of weight rests on the shoulders of one woman to sell both the likeability of her frequently unlikeable character, and the terror and wonder of confronting fantastic forces that feel beyond her control. In this case, that’s Rosa Salazar, who earned her chops in animation-enhanced acting in the title role of Alita: Battle Angel. Salazar’s Alma is by turns charming, selfish, independent, and righteous—but always compelling and deserving of empathy. We are given several opportunities to consider that we are putting our faith in a mentally unstable hero, but the urge for her to win out is consistent. Ably supported by a cast of supporting characters who could all headline their own show, Salazar is a true star.

It’s worth noting that one of the most delightfully weird elements of “Undone” is the way it mainstreams voices and cultures that are typically ignored, tokenized, or fetishized. Alma, for instance, is Latinx, Mestiza, half-Jewish, millennial, Texan (her rant about the Alamo is spot-on), but never any of these things exclusively to advance the plot or at the expense of being relatably human. Similarly, her father’s faith or her boyfriend’s home country are essential to understanding them and who they are to Alma, but they don’t feel like they came from a diversity checklist devised to maximize revenue streams. They’re interesting, they add complexity, and they make a surreal enterprise feel very real. If it’s weird, it’s because it’s finally not weird at all.

“Undone” is hardly perfect. The limits of the animation can be felt most in the “real-world” scenes, when actors walk awkwardly in and out of scenes like they’ve stepped out of the cutscenes from a 1990s CD-ROM game. Perhaps even more awkward is the basic limitation of the TV series itself. To spend time in a created universe is to ultimately need some kind of understanding; we’re gonna need to know how the transporter works, even if it’s just a device to get Kirk down to the planet. The more Alma begins to take control over time and space, the more invested we become in knowing what’s going on, and that can be incredibly dangerous for a series. Explain too much and you’re “Lost;try and pile on the mysteries for too long and you’re “Twin Peaks.” It’s a fine line, and with the prospect of a second season teased by this season’s finale, “Undone” is teetering right on the edge. But for now, the show is an easy-to-binge, well-balanced mélange of sober and strange.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…manages somehow to be both surreal and yet strangely hyper-real, a sensation enhanced by the technique of rotoscope animation, which traces live-action actors (all terrific) against oil-painting backgrounds to shimmering, hypnotic effect.”–Matt Roush, TV Insider

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: 9 LIVES OF A WET PUSSY (1976)

Nothing Sacred

DIRECTED BY: Abel Ferrara (as “Jimmy Boy L”)

FEATURING: Dominique Santos, Pauline LaMonde, Joy Silver,  Abel Ferrara (as Jimmy Laine)

PLOT: Gypsy reminisces about her relationship with Pauline while working out how to keep her wild lover faithful to her alone.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: 9 Lives is a porno, but Abel Ferrara’s artistic direction coupled with the epistolary and dreamy nature of the narrative make this an odd porno.

COMMENTS: A piece of trivia: the review for Blue Movie has gotten about fifteen hits a day since it was first posted. That’s not because it’s particularly insightful,1 but because 366 gets a bit of overseas traffic for “blue movies“—and few I’ve seen come “bluer” than Abel Ferrara’s 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy. Any systematic discussion of movies (weird or otherwise) would be remiss not to include cinema’s less respected peer, pornography. Since mankind could sculpt, then paint, then photograph, there has been a healthy inclusion of carnality in art. Film is no exception, and so it was without trepidation that I dove headfirst into 9 Lives.

The tone is set immediately, with the opening credits intercut with a graphic scene that flirts with abstraction via novel camera focus and expressionistic lighting. The story proper begins with a narration playing over a steamy encounter with “the French stable boy”, which we quickly learn is being read from a letter to Gypsy (Dominique Santos) from her on-again, off-again lover, Pauline (Pauline LaMonde, Ferrara’s girlfriend at the time). Through Gypsy’s emotional lens, we witness Pauline’s insatiable sexual appetite, her transcendent approach to pleasure, and her unbridled freedom. Various segments illustrate Pauline’s character: an encounter with a gas station attendant while her husband waits in the car; her upbringing—and its Lot-ian results—under a strict, Catholic father; and a long-term affair with her Nigerian lover, Nacala (Joy Silver). All the while, we return to Gypsy talking directly to us as she maneuvers to retrieve Pauline and keep her to herself.

What could have been a mindless framework for an anthology of loosely related set-pieces becomes something considerably more under Abel Ferrara’s oversight. Gypsy’s mysticism appears throughout; her name indicates her archetype. Ferrara himself plays another archetype—the religious, domineering father—in one of the episodes, breaking the incest taboo in his very first film. 9 Lives‘ rape scene, however, suggests Ferrara’s future. Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant, and even New Rose Hotel all explore sexual violence and guilt. We expect that from gritty dramas; much less-so from dirty movies. The movie climaxes with a nebulous scene that underlines the film’s contrast between dreaminess and physicality while mirroring the opening: Pauline with Nacala, together, intercut with shots of Gypsy wandering with aimless purpose through a forest.

It works well enough as a story (I was interested in the development of Gypsy’s and Pauline’s relationship), and Abel Ferrara gets the job done, as it were, as a straight-up pornographer. However, I highly recommend watching the Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray with Samm Deighan’s commentary. She provides the film’s context and a thorough sketch of the director as a young man (he was 25 at the time). Beginning as he did in hardcore film, I’m not surprised that Ferrara remained on cinema’s fringes throughout his career; the passion that robbed him of mainstream success, however, is the key to his oeuvre’s staying power.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an opium-stoned hostess introduces several sexual vignettes, and though slightly classier than the usual cum pageants, it’s impossible to achieve a Lady Chatterley-like decadence when you’re saddled with an Al Adamson-like cast… a must-see embarrassment!” –Steven Puchalski, Shock Cinema