Tag Archives: Fantasy

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MFKZ (2017)

Recommended

Mutafukaz

ムタフカズ

DIRECTED BY: Shôjirô Nishimi, Guillaume “Run” Renard

FEATURING: Voices of Kenn Michael, Vince Staples, Michael Chiklis, Dino Andrade, Giancarlo Esposito, RZA (English-language dub)

PLOT: Angelino leads a dead-end existence with his flaming-skulled roommate Vinz in a city without hope until a truck accident leads to some freaky superpowers and crazy violence against an unstoppable invasion.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Because there’s no other home for a Jhonen Vasquez/Ralph Bakshi-style mash-up from the studio that brought us Tekkonkinkreet in alliance with some subversive Frenchies.

COMMENTS: Through some twist of fate, 2019 has been shaping up to be “The Year of the French Film” for me. Whether bearing witness to psycho-dream bombast, bracing myself against existenti-o-action chicanery, or enduring millennialist tedium, I have fallen quite firmly into a pulsating realm of Gallic sensibilities. Add to these titles something offbeat, exciting, and abbreviated: MFKZ. Before diving into the creamy center of this review, let me first assert the following: I am not, and have never been, on the pay-roll of Canal+, StudioCanal, or Société des Cinéromans. To paraphrase a famous North-of-France poet, I was neither born French nor achieved Frenchness, but somehow seem to have had Frenchness thrust upon me.

Having managed to hold down his pizza delivery job for almost three weeks, Angelino is forced to hand in his delivery scooter after getting smashed a bit by an oncoming truck. What distracted him? Why, the lovely Luna, who shows up in his life just enough to screw it up. Not that he needs any help with that. He’s constantly in fear of the omnipresent psycho gangs, he’s two months behind in his rent for his crummy apartment (though at least the cockroaches are friendly), his roommate and best friend Vinz (Vince Staples) is even less employed than he is (possibly owing to the fact that his head is a flame-crowned skull), and his other friend is a conspiracy-theory-spouting spaz of a cat (or something). Still, after a bad headache from his concussion and a nasty encounter with S.W.A.T.-y police goons, things start looking up as he discovers he’s suddenly got powers of strength, speed, and stamina quite beyond the norm. Good thing, too, because ‘Lino and his pals uncover a sinister plan from outer space.

For some reason I feel compelled to preemptively defend the “Recommended” label. I didn’t feel this way while watching it—it was an absolute hoot, combining lots of neato visual gimmicks (the high-speed chase by some “Men In Black” guys pursuing a hijacked ice cream van is a great bit, mixing gritty Bakshi with Grand Theft Auto), clever visual references (keep an eye out for “El Topo‘s” bodega), and recurring sci-fi/noir craziness that kept me elated throughout. The plot-line is just about as ridiculous as you can have without becoming incomprehensible, and the protagonists are wedged seamlessly into their urban milieu. And there’s a Shakespeare-spouting mega-thug, voiced by none other than RZA. But I digress.

I’ve read a number of reviews for MFKZ, and most of them are pretty down on the whole thing. This might simply be a case of a love-it/hate-it divide, with the majority falling in the latter category, but I’m almost certain I detected an undercurrent of sneering dismissiveness. MFKZ is full of life: never-say-die heroes, never-seem-to-die villains, and never-have-I-seen-such-detail backdrops. Nishimi and Renard have together created a beautifully realized genre classic: slacker-everyman saves the world and oh yeah, there are a bunch of tentacle monsters.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Any film encompassing Nazi-punching lucha libre wrestlers and top secret moonbases should by rights be huge fun, but even Renard finds himself conceding, ‘What the F*** is Going On?’ in a mid-film graphic. Enjoyment will depend on a tolerance for that randomness teenagers apparently find hilarious.”–Mike McCahill, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BORDER (2018)

Gräns

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ali Abbasi

FEATURING: Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Jörgen Thorsson, Ann Petrén, Sten Ljunggren

PLOT: Tina is a Swedish customs officer with a super-human ability to detect when travelers are hiding something; her monotonous existence is upended when she meets Vore, who is hiding something far stranger than mere contraband.

Still from Border (2018)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Ali Abbasi’s film unflinchingly depicts “the other” in a low-key manner that forces the viewer to constantly question how well they can handle those who are very different from them. The mounting discomfort breaks mid-way through a reveal that is as surprising as it is relieving.

COMMENTS: Working for a site such as this, one often (and, indeed, hopefully) stumbles across strange and unsettling things that one cannot un-see. The carnage of Greenaway’s chamber drama; the nightmare of Lynch’s take on parenthood; or the sheer unpleasantness of von Trier’s rumination on couples going through a rough patch: all grab the viewer with an aural and visual assault through a strange, strange lens. With Border, director Ali Abbasi joins this crew of unrelenting visionaries. For its first half, his film defies categorization; for its second half, it pulls the viewer into a fairy-tale macabre whose supernatural elements are belied by their matter-of-fact depiction.

Tina (Eva Melander) is ugly, anti-social, awkward, but undeniably skilled at her job. With an almost feral sniff at passersby, she is able to determine if they are carrying something dangerous or illegal across the border into Sweden. Being able to sense shame, guilt, and a gamut of other emotions, she spots underage boozers, would-be traffickers, and even a well-heeled traveler with something dreadful on a hidden memory card. When a comparably ugly, antisocial, and awkward man (Eero Milonoff) passes her post, she knows something is “wrong” about him, but a thorough search of his luggage (and his person) reveals nothing. She’s never failed before, and feels compelled to learn more about this mysterious man. While aiding the authorities in breaking up a child pornography ring, she bonds with this stranger and ultimately learns two unsettling truths.

Without giving much more away, I felt a very strange sense of relief after the big reveal. The first hour of Border goes by without any explanation for the uncomfortable goings-on: uncomfortable for someone like me, at least. The continuous kind of “normalcy” on display became very trying, and my sense of comparative ease when Abbasi finally showed his hand made me wonder: would this movie have been better without that release valve? As it stands, it is a very good, and very strange, viewing experience. Had he gone completely without explanation, it would have been a much more difficult movie to watch, but perhaps a much more salient one. Having been pushed to the edge of an uncomfortable frisson, the pull-back allowed me to think of it more cinematically; and I was able to then better view it for its narrative and thematic merits. In the end, Border‘s greatest achievement is providing the viewer with a believable, optimistic finish to its strange tale of deformity, love, and human cruelty.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The strangeness in this film writhes like bacteria.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BETWEEN WORLDS (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Maria Pulera

FEATURING: Nicolas Cage, , Penelope Mitchell, Garrett Clayton, Gwendolyn Mulamba

PLOT: Joe, a down-on-his-luck trucker, drives Julie to the hospital to visit her comatose daughter, Billie; when he helps Julie travel to the “other side” so she can guide her daughter’s soul back to this world, the spirit of Joe’s dead wife takes the opportunity to hijack Billie’s body.

Still from Between Worlds (2018)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Twin Peaks, Washington meets Small Town, Alabama in a heart-warming-turns-disturbing tale featuring a possessed teenage girl and a frazzled Nicolas Cage-as-truck-driver who has a history of reading the erotic remembrances of… Nicolas Cage.

COMMENTS: When Maria Pulera watched “Twin Peaks” while growing up, I’m sure she said to herself, “I can do that.” And so she does, with the great Nicolas Cage front and center (and the great Angelo Badalamenti noodling musically in the background). Cage’s performance as a burnt-out trucker plays like a B-side to his Mandy animalism; and while I wouldn’t say he goes off the deep end, he’s about as close as any realistic scenario might allow. At least as realistic as the “dead-wife’s-soul-steals-comatose-girl’s-body” plotline can be expected to be. Everything comes crashing together in an Alabama melodrama ripped from a ’90s-drenched Tales from the Crypt episode, culminating in something altogether bizarre.

Pity poor Joe (Nicolas Cage). We meet him, boot-first, as he’s trying to convince his boss that he’ll get his truck payment settled next month. No dice, the truck is to be repossessed, and Joe, with his mountain of worry, takes comfort in a gas station foot-long. Hearing strange thumps from the restroom, he charges in and beats down a man strangling a woman. The woman, another trucker named Julie (Franka Potente—yes, that one) is nonplussed at this ostensible rescue, as she was trying to meet up with her daughter’s soul. Joe can’t help but try to do the right thing, so he drives her to the hospital where her daughter, Billie (Penelope Mitchell), rests coma-style. His spiritual baggage comes with him, unfortunately, so when Julie tries again to reach her daughter, Joe’s dead wife uses the opportunity to sneak back into this world.

Between Worlds‘ first act plays as a bizarre resurrection of Nicolas Cage’s more lamentable ’90s comedy stylings as funneled through a David Lynch fan-girl’s love letter to them both. I suspect (hope) virtually none of you have heard of (and, even less, sat through) the 1994 rom-com It Could Happen to You, but I was having flashbacks to Cage’s cop character, but now having been dragged through the ringer after losing his wife and daughter in a fire and forced to wash “NoDoz” down by the mouthful with swigs of whiskey. The sweet, lovey-dovey first act where Joe bonds with Julie goes by quickly, in its oddball way, before the reality of the situation sinks in that this isn’t a romantic comedy.

Frankly, I had a great time watching this1)Others didn’t. Amazon’s display of Between Worlds shows a 2.5-star rating for the Prime Video, a 4-star rating for the Blu-ray, and a 1-star rating for the DVD., and the expression I had on my face by the end confirmed my suspicion that what I was watching, though perhaps derivative, was quite strange. A smooth jazz score keeps prodding you (like in “Twin Peaks”), creepy evil is made manifest through possession (like in “Twin Peaks”), and there’s even a bad boy Bobby Briggs character (like in…). If you don’t like Cage, you will not like this movie; but if you do like Cage, then I recommend you hop in your truck and take a spin through Maria Pulera’s Alabama.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you saw ‘Mandy,’ and wished more Nicolas Cage movies were dark, weird, and personal: watch ‘Between Worlds’ and be careful what you wish for.” –Simon Abrams, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

References   [ + ]

1. Others didn’t. Amazon’s display of Between Worlds shows a 2.5-star rating for the Prime Video, a 4-star rating for the Blu-ray, and a 1-star rating for the DVD.

CAPSULE: THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF THE YIK-YAK (1984)

aka Gwendoline

DIRECTED BY: Just Jaeckin

FEATURING: Tawny Kitaen, Brent Huff, Zabou, Bernadette Lafont

PLOT: The precocious and beautiful daughter of a lost explorer follows his footsteps into the wilds of darkest Asia, stumbling upon a distaff cult that has harnessed the power of a volcano for their own nefarious ends.

Still from THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF YIK YAK (1984)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Gwendoline is going for a Barbarella-meets-Indiana Jones vibe, which means a lot of silliness and comic book-style strangeness. Ultimately, it’s all empty calories, neither compelling enough as a story nor strange enough as a concept to earn a spot here. Softcore eroticism is all it has to offer.

COMMENTS: This is undoubtedly a politically incorrect thing to say in this day and age, but for a teenage boy in the mid- to late-80s, premium cable was an absolute godsend. Before the internet gave us way too much access with more excitement and variety than the average copy of Playboy could offer, softcore cinema on TV was a treasure to any puberty-stricken manchild who had no concept of how to relate to the opposite sex but still longed with piquant desperation to see a bare breast. So many spring breaks and fraternity vacations and sorority car washes captured on celluloid seemingly for the exclusive enjoyment of these sad bubbling cauldrons of undirected testosterone… and if the movie had a nerdy theme or a B- to C- list star, so much the better.

The Perils of Gwendoline is an almost perfect exemplar of the form: a goofy adventure with shades of Raiders of the Lost Ark, starring the only real reason for its existence—a frequently naked Tawny Kitaen. Before her hood-sliding appearance in Whitesnake videos (and well before her unfortunate turn as domestic abuser and troubled soul), Kitaen was probably best known as Tom Hanks’ smokeshow bride in Bachelor Party. With fiery red hair and a girl-next-door smile, she had all the makings of a star. Gwendoline is one of her few starring roles, and watching it… well, it quickly becomes clear why her career didn’t exactly take off. Kitaen is beautiful, but pouty and whiny. Yes, we expect our heroine to be shallow at first, as she wanders innocently into the wild world in pursuit of the rare butterfly that became her father’s obsession. But Gwendoline goes well past naïve and arrives at annoying, so much so that you wonder why her faithful maid Beth doesn’t ditch her at the first opportunity.

Gwendoline meets her match in the mercenary Willard, played with equal parts stupidity and obnoxiousness by Brent Huff. This relationship is clearly meant to sparkle with witty repartee, and perhaps the dubbed version of this French film achieves that goal. Alas, in English, not so much. Together, it’s a contest between Kitaen and Huff to see who can be the more irritating. But since we’re treated to several not-remotely-subtle excuses for Gwendoline and Beth to strip or writhe in ecstasy, it’s a burden we just have to bear.

Fortunately, once our adventurers escape from a tribe of cannibals of dubious racial sensitivity, we get to where the movie really wants to go: the hidden city of Pikaho (no, seriously), populated exclusively by women who fight and race chariots in leather shoulder pads and thong bikinis. This ups the weird quotient significantly, with complex explanations for how this society prospers, strange medieval-futuristic design mashups, and the all-important minimum justification for women to take off their clothes. It’s as though the filmmakers took their jungle adventure-pastiche as far as they could go, and then just started indulging every other fetish they had.

A movie like this can be enjoyably dumb, even beyond its usefulness as fantasy fodder. But Gwendoline is more often just dumb. For exotic locales and copious nudity (both specialties of director Jaeckin, as seen in his magnum opus, Emmanuelle), the movie delivers in spades. But for coherent story and decent acting, you should not have come here in the first place. It mainly serves as a relic of a far off time, back when one could turn to HBO after midnight for a glimpse of the forbidden.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The Perils of Gwendoline is a movie I saw way back when I was probably too young to appreciate it, and time has only made it more wacky. Half a low-rent Indiana Jones rip-off, half a French tittie flick, The Perils of Gwendoline is bad to be sure, but it’s so bizarrely and charmingly bad that you simply have to see it to believe it really exists. Fans of bad acting, sets literally made of cardboard, and action sequences bordering on the surreally amateurish will have a ball with this one.” – Scott Weinberg, eFilmCritic

(This movie was nominated for review by Bob Barfield. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

356. NOVEMBER (2017)

“They’re the sort of old legends that are made up just to find a simple reason for every complicated thing. No one wants to admit that they’re foolish. The Frog of the North appeared in the sky from who knows where, and he disappeared again who knows where. But people couldn’t be content with that! Humans can’t stand things that are outside their reach.”–Andrus Kiviräh, “The Man Who Spoke Snakish”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rainer Sarnet

FEATURING: Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik

PLOT: Estonian peasant Liina, who may be able to transform into a wolf, is in love with fellow villager Hans, who returns her affection until he catches a glimpse of the daughter of the German baron who now rules their territory and is immediately smitten. Liina appeals to a witch to cast a spell to turn Hans’ heart to her. Hans, in turn, makes a deal with the Devil to build a kratt he believes will help him reach his beloved.

BACKGROUND:

  • November is based on the Estonian novel “Rehepapp: ehk November” by Andrus Kiviräh, which was a massive success in its homeland. “Rehepapp” has not been translated into English, although Kiviräh’s second novel, “The Man Who Spoke Snakish,” which treats fading pagan beliefs in a similar fashion, has been.
  • The producers raised money through crowdfunding to produce a model of a kratt, then used the test footage to secure money for the film from Polish and Dutch sources.
  • Most of the minor villager roles are played by nonprofessional actors.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our first look at a kratt: it’s a cow skull tied to three sticks, with sharp farm implements tied to them, which cartwheels across the lawn of an 19th century villa on its way to break down a stable door.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Kratt airlifting cow; the chicken dead; two-ass plague gambit

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Set in a world where our forefathers’ craziest superstitions are literally true, November weaves a Gothic tapestry of sleepwalking noblewomen, hags, bewitched friars, and dead ancestors who sometimes manifest as chickens. And, of course, kratts that turn into primitive helicopters. You could not have seen that one coming.


U.S. trailer for November

COMMENTS: November is, at least superficially, like the Estonian Continue reading 356. NOVEMBER (2017)

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: “DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY, SEASON 2” (2017)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Douglas Mackinnon (episodes 1 & 2), (ep. 3 & 4), Richard Laxton (ep. 5 & 6), Wayne Yip (ep. 7 & 8), Alrick Riley (ep. 9 & 10)

FEATURING: , , , Amanda Walsh, , , , , John Hannah, Alan Tudyk

PLOT: After the events of Season 1, Todd and Farrah are on the run and Dirk is a prisoner in a secret military facility; a new mystery begins when a visitor from the magical land of Wendimoor reveals that Dirk is prophesied to save their world from an evil Mage.

dirk_gently's_holistic_detective_agency_season_2

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: TV series, not movie. But it’s a series you may want to take note of: otherwise, we wouldn’t be reporting on it, would we? “Dirk Gently”’s mix of absurd humor, bewildering but addictively complex plotting, and fanboy-friendly sci-fantasy tropes was just intriguing enough that that BBC America took a chance on it as potential cult item, but also so weird and difficult that it was cancelled after only two seasons.

COMMENTS: “Have you noticed an acceleration of strangeness in your life?”

The following synopsis may not make much sense to a lot of you. This includes veterans of “Dirk Gently Season 1” as well as newcomers to the series. The one advantage Season 1 viewers have over total neophytes is that they understand “Gently”’s method—throw about a dozen subplots and random events at the viewer in episode 1, then spend the rest of the season slowly connecting the dots, with every little detail merging in a “holistic” (and fantastic) fashion. So, I’ll just lay it out: season 2 introduces a gay pink-haired hero with a scissor sword. A train in the sky. A fishing boat run aground in a field in Montana. A friendly, sort of slow sheriff and his hard-partying deputy. A beleaguered middle-aged woman with a limp, a crummy son, a crummy husband, and a crummy job at the quarry where her crummy boss is making shady deals. A dashing gangster in a snappy white suit with a black tattooed hand and a fabulous mustache. A magic wand. A car stuck in a tree. (The literal Purple People Eater won’t show up until episode 4).

It does all connect, naturally. This high-fantasy based plot is perhaps not as satisfying as Season 1’s time-travel yarn, but on the other hand the show devotes more time to building up its underlying infrastructure, dropping hints about Project Blackwing and introducing new “anomalous individuals” like Dirk and the Rowdy 3. (They’re all sort of a team of metaphysical X-Men gone renegade.) Rather than dominating the plot with his clueless exuberance, Samuel Barnett’s Gently is sidelined a bit this season, moping through most of the story in an existential crisis. He and Elijah Wood’s Todd Brotzman invert their Season 1 dynamic, with Todd now eager to solve the case for his own reasons, dragging the reluctant detective along with him. Other characters pursue their own arcs. Farrah shows more vulnerability, and there are hints of burgeoning romance between her and Todd. Todd’s sister Amanda develops magical powers, making her character more relevant—although this development feels a little forced. Ken is set up for a heel turn. And holistic assassin Bart (Fiona Dourif) remains the most fascinating entity. Her fans will be thrilled with her opportunities to prove she is the ultimate badass killing machine, and she gets by far the best lines: “I think that sometimes when you’re killing people they don’t like it, and it makes them unhappy, and scared, and also dead, which they don’t like, I don’t think…” If that monologue doesn’t intrigue you, then “Dirk Gently” isn’t the show for you.

Unfortunately, the series has been canceled, and we’ll never get to see where creator was ultimately headed with all of this. The most bittersweet part of what turned out to be the series finale is that the last shot sets Bart up for a dramatically increased role in the unmade Season 3.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a show where weird things happen in literally every frame…”–Hahn Nguyen, IndieWire (season premier)