Tag Archives: Epic

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BARDO, FALSE CHRONICLE OF A HANDFUL OF TRUTHS (2022)

Bardo, Falsa Crónica de unas Cuantas Verdades

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Griselda Siciliani, Íker Sánchez Solano, Ximena Lamadrid, Francisco Rubio

PLOT: A Mexican national film director receives an award in Los Angeles, causing him to reflect on his own artistic life and the Mexican immigrant/expatriate experience.

Still from Bard , a false chronicle of a handful of truths (2022)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: No director can adopt 8 1/2‘s self-reflective template without risking charges of narcissism, pretentiousness, and plagiarism. Iñárritu changes ahead anyway, and proves that there are still unexplored territories in the subgenre—and that you can keep a slice of the audience’s attention, as long as you keep it weird.

COMMENTS: If Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truth‘s daunting title doesn’t scare you off, maybe the 200 minute (scaled back from the 222-minute version that met with a mix of indifference and mild hostility at its Venice premiere) runtime will. Whenever a director decides to pursue a semi-autobiographical project in a surreal style, and amasses an epic budget to realize his dream, red flags start going up: get ready to gaze at a navel not of your own choosing. For these reasons, I approached the prospect of previewing Bardo with trepidation. But I’m happy to report that the movie, while it lags at times and never finds a way out of its own desert, delivers the necessary audacious panache to justify its aspirations.

Bardo begins with a shadowy man flying (well, jumping so high that he might as well be flying) over an endless desert scrub brush, reminding us of Guido’s opening dream of artistic escape. Later, a passerby addresses Silverio, our director protagonist, as “maestro.” Backstage at a popular Mexican TV show, he must weave through a throng of strongmen, dwarf matadors, a white pony, and primping showgirls in pink fur, a scene as chaotic as any Fellini circus. A character critiques the director’s latest movie (or the one we’re watching?) as “pretentious and pointlessly oeneiric,” surfacing Silverio’s own internal doubts.  Silverio sneaks out of an obligation to face the press just like . Silverio’s friends and family show up in a dreamscape in the end as a brass band belts a march that could have been written by Nino Rota in a mariachi mood. There are probably more 8 1/2 references stuck in Bardo, and of course the entire structure of the film—the leaps backward and forward in time, the confusion between reality and fantasy, the reappearance of vanished past memories in the present—comes straight from the maestro’s playbook. Iñárritu  could not have ignored Fellini’s influence without appearing like a thief, so he wisely honors the spirit of his filmic ancestor with these respectful tributes.

Where Iñárritu departs from Fellini is in his explicit Mexicanness, and his explicit politics. Fellini’s films were always completely personal; if they helped define the world’s view of what an Italian  man was, that was simply because Fellini could not exist in a world without pasta and palazzi. He had little interest in the partisan issues of the day, however. Iñárritu is far more didactic in his approach: a completely realistic breakfast conversation between the director and his teenage son exposes the tension between Mexican Americans who primarily identify with their homeland and preserving its heritage, and those who prefer to assimilate and embrace the opportunities of their new home. At other times, the symbolism is broad and powerful: in a centerpiece of the story, Silverio climbs a mountain of corpses in downtown Los Angeles, only to find Hernán Cortés sitting on top: the conquistador bums a cigarette, and they discuss colonialism.

Bardo is about 50% personal and 50% political, and while not all of it works—which is almost inevitable in a work of this scope—almost every scene has a weird dream twist to it to catch your interest. Sometimes, Silverio speaks without moving his lips, to the annoyance of his family. When the director meets his father in a men’s room, his own body digitally shrinks to the size of an eight-year-old. And there’s a great—shall we say “spare”—rendition of ‘s “Let’s Dance” on a crowded dance floor. By casting some element magically off-center in every scene—and occasionally throwing a curve ball to surprise us with sequences that are completely realistic—Iñárritu builds a dreamlike portrait of a man, of a diaspora, and of the tension between the two.

Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths streams exclusively on Netflix starting December 17.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The whole thing is supposed to run on a dream logic reminiscent of Jean Cocteau or Ingmar Bergman, but rather than immersive or contemplative it’s just confusing and weird.”–Jennifer Heaton, Alternative Lens (festival review)

17*. SON OF THE WHITE MARE (1981)

Fehérlófia

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“In my animated films the design of every frame is of great importance, as if it would be a painting. Most of the time, and particularly in a mythical, fabulous context, my human characters, even lead characters, are only a minor part of the whole thing.” —Marcell Jankovics

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DIRECTED BY: Marcell Jankovics

FEATURING: Voices of György Cserhalmi, Vera Pap, Gyula Szabó, Ferenc Szalma, Mari Szemes, Szabolcs Tóth

PLOT: Fleeing hunters in a forest, a pregnant white mare takes refuge in a knot of the World Tree. For seven years plus seven she feeds her son, Treeshaker, before he embarks on a quest to destroy the three dragons that have captured the three princesses of the kingdom. Joined by his brothers Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer, he seeks the entrance to the Underworld in order to battle the monsters.

BACKGROUND:

  • The narrative takes its inspiration from around half-a-dozen variations of a folk legend (which itself exists in over fifty forms). The canonical version is “Fehérlófia” as related by the Hungarian poet László Arany, though Jankovics’ rendition often departs from this source.
  • Jankovics’ decision to adopt an experimental animation style proved to be a double-edged sword. The film’s singular appearance grew famous only after years of word-of-mouth percolation; it was unmarketable at the time of its release, and Jankovics found only fleeting acclaim (and no work whatsoever) outside of his native Hungary.
  • Jankovics discounts any assertions about having taken psychedelics, claiming instead he merely wished to respect the fantastical grandeur of the source material.
  • The titular White Mare takes on a warm, pinkish glow when near her son. This tonal effect was lost until the film’s recent restoration, the mare having appeared simply white in earlier washed-out prints.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Treeshaker striding confidently behind row upon row of modern buildings in silhouette as a horrible brown smog obscures the scene: a mythical hero boldly facing modernity.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Bubble-beard gnome; twelve-headed skyscraper monster

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It might be impossible to find another feature-length animation that is simultaneously so stylized while feeling so organic, or with such vibrant colors telling so heroic a tale. Every cel is a stunning piece of art that seamlessly morphs into the next jaw-dropper. The curious source material lends a further twist: ancient Central European folklore channeled through a 20th-century animator toiling behind the Iron Curtain.


Re-release trailer for Son of the White Mare

COMMENTS: Marcell Jankovics’ introductory dedication declares Continue reading 17*. SON OF THE WHITE MARE (1981)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE MAD FOX (1962)

Koiya koi nasuna koi; AKA Love, Thy Name Be Sorrow

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DIRECTED BY: Tomu Uchida

FEATURING: Michiko Saga, Hashizô Ôkawa

PLOT: An apprentice astrologer, betrayed and driven mad, flees to the countryside where he meets both the twin sister of his lost beloved and fox spirits.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: The Mad Fox opens as a medieval Japanese epic with a  folkloric spin and then suddenly goes mad, turning into kabuki theater and ending on a flying flame.

COMMENTS: The Mad Fox begins on a grandiose note when a “white rainbow” portentously appears in the sky. The Emperor summons the court astrologer, who predicts doom for the kingdom. Before the sage can divulge a remedy suggested by the astrological scroll that holds the answers to the future, he is slain by bandits. Only his chosen successor can read the scroll, but the astrologer died without officially choosing between his two disciples. Much scheming and intrigue follows, and the first act ends with Yasuna, the good and faithful disciple, fleeing to the countryside after the death of Sakaki, his beloved and the astrologer’s adopted daughter.

This first section of the film is a sumptuous Technicolor spectacle that plays out on lavish courtyard sets with characters kneeling about in embroidered silk robes, a mise-en-scene that wouldn’t be out of place in an period piece. Things shift precipitously towards the abstract once Yasuna’s insanity hits, however. The exiled apprentice finds himself in a sea of glowing sunflowers while butterflies on visible strings flit by and a traditional Japanese singer warbles a warning to “never fall in love.” After this Expressionist interlude, act two begins when he stumbles upon Sakaki’s twin sister and, in his madness, believes her to be his lost love. Things get further complicated when the noble Yasuna rescues a wounded fox, transformed into human shape. The fox spirit’s granddaughter falls in love with him and when Yasuna is later wounded, she assumes the likeness of Sakaki and appears to him and licks his wounds clean. It’s a shade of Vertigo, but with the madman desperately falling for two separate specters of his lost love. As Yasuna and the fox build an illusory family, the final act leaves realism even farther behind, turning into a kabuki performance played out on an obvious stage set.

For some reason, synopses and reviews often stress that the movie is “hard to follow.” Although a few details of Tokugawa era society might be unfamiliar to Western audiences, this concern is greatly overblown; I had no more trouble following this than I would a Shakespeare play. The more common complaint among the movie’s rare detractors is that the stylistic transitions Uchida employs are jarring, which I consider to be an asset rather than a liability. The second half of the film, when we follow Yasuna into his delusions, are consistently more engaging and moving than the realist set up–at least, for those of us who value deep imagination over shallow authenticity.

Though respected in his native Japan, Tomu Uchida never broke through to international audiences, for reasons that probably have more to do with bad luck than anything else. The Mad Fox was seldom exhibited outside Japan. Arrow Academy rediscovered and restored this minor classic in 2020 and released it on Blu-ray, where it can now be experienced by the adventurous cinephile with moderately deep pockets.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… there reaches a point at which the movie just goes off the rails in terms of strangeness; Uchida throws anything even resembling logic out the window and begins offering up increasingly oddball elements – including musical numbers and animated sequences – before the entire thing transforms into a filmed play (literally!) that even Max Fischer would find overwrought.”–David Nusair, Reel Film Reviews

LIST CANDIDATE: UNDER THE SILVER LAKE (2018)

Under the Silver Lake has been promoted to Apocryphally Weird status. Please read the official entry. Comments are closed on this post.

DIRECTED BY: David Robert Mitchell

FEATURING: , , Patrick Fischler, Jimmi Simpson, David Yow, Jeremy Bobb

PLOT: Doc Sportello‘s grand-son, Sam, is going to be — wait, no. Disheveled loafer Sam is going to be kicked out of his apartment in five days for (criminally overdue) back-rent. Instead of fixing his domestic problem, he becomes embroiled in perhaps the biggest cover-up that has ever bamboozled the Golden State.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: A serial dog murderer, a conspiracist ‘zine drawn to life, a map in a box of “Space Nuggets,” Jesus and the Brides of Dracula, palatial tombs, the Owl Woman, symbolic Chess moves, the Homeless King, and a mysterious Songwriter all come crashing down on a shiftless 30-something loser with a knack for crypticism. Barking women, Purgatory parties, and one bad cookie lock Under the Silver Lake into a realm of supreme strangeness reminiscent of that beach dream you had after reading Pynchon.

COMMENTS: Call it poor form of me, but I felt obliged to skip a second screening to hustle back and write about David Mitchell’s newest film. During the movie, variations on what to call it skipped around my brain, but ultimately I reckoned that Inherent Goonies best encapsulates the mood. This bizarre crime drama on barbiturates; this ambling post-Slacker comedy; this magnificent quest—somehow the director weds the listless protagonist with the adolescent adventure-stylings of “The Hardy Boys.” Jammed throughout are enough threads to sew yourself a nice cardigan to protect you from the sun while you’re strolling through the over-baked landscape of sorta-now-ish California.

Perched on his apartment’s balcony, Sam (Andrew Garfield) has a good view of his attractive older neighbor—a constantly topless bird fancier. Suddenly, a young beauty (Riley Keough) with a dog and a boombox catches his eye. They meet, they get high together, and then she disappears mysteriously in the middle of the night. Quietly curious and uncannily focused, Sam pursues the mystery at his own ambling pace, encountering an underground ‘zine artist (Patrick Fischler) who sets him on the right path and a coterie of über-hipster musicians whose songs are encoded with secret messages, before meeting the benevolent Homeless King (David Yow) by the grave of James Dean. What follows is an odyssey of unpleasant discovery as Sam finds that, for the rich, the world  is a very different kind of place than it is for everyone else.

I’ve already mentioned the Inherent Vice connection, and even if it were only Andrew Garfield’s Joaquin Phoenix-channeling performance, Under the Silver Lake would still be an odd duck. But David Mitchell keeps shoveling on more ducks at every turn. I don’t know where else I’d find cryptography and Hollywood history so intertwined. I don’t know where else I’d find the Purgatory club—the kind of place you might hang out between the Black and White Lodges. And I don’t know where else California’s bright lights  and beautiful people could find themselves crashing so violently into luxuriant subterranean twilight. Mitchell even drops some suggestions that Sam could be a burnt-out, alternate time-line Peter Parker.

Fortunately for us, our knight-errant keeps it together on his perilous mission seeking the maiden fair. The movie is epic in length and epic in scope, unveiling new side roads for Sam to shuffle along: sometimes in jeans, sometimes in pajamas. When an ultimate truth is discovered, Mitchell isn’t satisfied, and somehow manages to unveil an even ultimater truth. For reasons beyond my understanding, Under the Silver Lake was poorly received at Cannes. Perhaps it’s just not their kind of movie. Thank the heavens above for Fantasia: Mitchell’s latest effort found just the right kind of people there. With Under the Silver Lake, we fly very close to the sun; but unlike Icarus, we manage to crash comfortably on to our hot neighbor’s bed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[a] glib, weird hybrid comedy rife with conspiracy theories… what first seems a goofy light foray into pop culture slackerdom with a hefty added dose of voyeurism, becomes a down-the-rabbit-hole exploration of the fantasy geography of an L.A. undermined by subterranean caverns and tunnels, and inhabited by cultists, theorists, ethereal female escorts, and homeless shamans, as coyotes roam freely.” -Barbara Scharres, RogerEbert.Com

341. UNDERGROUND (1995)

“If you saw what I see for the future in Yugoslavia, it would scare you.”–Marshall Tito, 1971

“I think that this current conflict is the result of tectonic moves that last for a whole century. If there is anything good in this hell and horror, it is that the tectonic disturbance will result in absolute absurdity. And then a new quality will emerge from it.”–Emir Kusturica, circa 1995

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Predrag Manojlovic, Lazar Ristovski, Mirjana Jokovic, Ernst Stötzner, Slavko Stimac, Srdjan Todorovic

PLOT:Two Yugoslavian gangsters join the Communist Party to resist the invading Nazis. One tricks the other into hiding out in a large cellar, where he and a small tribe of partisans manufacture munitions he believes are going to the resistance but which are actually being sold on the black market for years after the war has ended. Decades later, the ruse falls apart, and the former friends meet on the battlefields of Kosovo.

BACKGROUND:

  • Kusturica adapted Underground from a play by Dušan Kovačević, although he only took the premise of people tricked into residing in a cellar under the pretense of a fake war from that source.
  • The movie was filmed in 1992 and 1993, while the Bosnian War was raging—and ethnic cleansing was going on.
  • Emir Kusturica’s original cut ran for 320 minutes, about the same length as the six part serialized television version released later.
  • Underground won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but was not nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar.
  • Despite its international success, Underground was controversial nearer to home. Kusturica was accused of taking money from the Serbian Broadcasting Corporation, which would have been a violation of sanctions against the Serbian government. (The director countered that he had only accepted non-financial assistance, and won a lawsuit for libel against a playwright who accused him of taking money from the Serbs.) The film was also criticized for being too conciliatory by not blaming Serbia and Slobodan Milošević’s regime directly for the Bosnian conflict. (Kusturica himself is ethnically Bosnian).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A burning wheelchair circling an inverted crucifix under its own power.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Flying bride; chimp in a tank; underwater brass band

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Up until the third act, Underground plays as an absurd, Balkanized satire—a far wilder ride than the average moviegoer is accustomed to, but not a film that went all the way to “weird.” That final half-hour, however, pulls out all of reality’s stops, sending the film off into a nightmarishly surreal conclusion, then soldiering on to a more conciliatory mystical ending. It’s the perfect, weird way to cap off a world cinema masterpiece.


Original trailer for Underground

COMMENTS: Emir Kusturica considers himself Yugoslavian. “In my Continue reading 341. UNDERGROUND (1995)