This short begins at the conclusion of a fight between a man and a dragon. We’re sharing it here because of where it goes from there.
DIRECTED BY: Takahiro Umehara
FEATURING: Voices of Lee Jihyon, Jung Yoojung, and Kim Yul
PLOT: Muju, a dark cosmic lord, is enveloping the earth’s sky more and more each night because the moon has gone missing; a young princess and musician must work together to stop Muju and his earthly minion, the despicable Count Tar.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Moon in the Hidden Woods features two spectacular scenes of psychedelic light play, as well as a host of novel monsters and battles, but is grounded at heart in the world of fantasy.
COMMENTS: The Moon is the Hidden Woods‘ varied elements give it a feeling of timelessness. As a Japanese director of a South Korean story, Takahiro Umehara imbues The Moon Hidden in the Woods with a touch of universality, as well. Upon finishing the film, I felt that it could have just as easily been made forty years ago as a month or two ago. This is no criticism: it has the style and aura of a film you might have seen on occasion, with great excitement, as a child, reveling in the unfolding of a truly grand adventure grounded by young, likeable heroes.
These heroes are up against the double adversaries of the great, terrible alien, Muju, and the vain, manipulative Count Tar. The story begins in a bazaar where two troupes of musicians have gathered for a percussion battle. Janggu is the leader of “Nova Folk Band,” and with the help of the incognito princess Navillera, his team handily dispatches the sitting champions, “Pipe Beat.” The action then goes into overdrive, as royal guards pursue Navillera and Janggu, who escape with meteorite hunters riding mechanical war birds and retreat to the Nova village outside of the city. One of the Count’s agents betrays the villagers and Janggu and Navillera are forced to flee into the Hidden Woods. They know they must stop Muju, who threatens the planet, while being harried by Count Tar’s henchmen.
All that is merely skimming the surface of the goings-on in The Moon in the Hidden Woods. Though he’s perhaps late to the game, Umehara creates something almost mythopoeic in this movie. Although largely based on ancient Korean customs and myths, this distillation is a singular vision of the director and his animation team. The stylistic flourishes enhance the underlying mythology: the prevalence of Korea’s five colors which make up the world (black, blue, white, orange, and yellow); the importance of drum music, along with its metaphorical significance of “bouncing back” from adversity; and a Middle Ages-meets-steampunk mechanical aesthetic.
Admittedly I only fully appreciated what was going on after having interviewed the filmmaker the morning after the screening. But my initial impression, wholly ignorant of the film’s precedents, was still one of “kick-ass wonder”. The Moon in the Hidden Woods shows a vibrant society squaring off against great evil, the staple of any great epic. While its different threads are pulled from a particular culture, Takahiro Umehara, as an outsider, revels in the opportunity to weave them into something completely new. The one caveat to my praise is that Moon very much has the feel of a children’s movie. That said, it’s a children’s movie head and shoulders above the competition.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…will delight you with all the cool visuals and small details, while making you wish the filmmakers had been as creative with their story as the visuals.”–Steve Kopian, Unseen Films (festival screening)
Captain Millipede, voiced by Tom Waits, tells of his last excursion to harvest milk from the moon 3.7 billion years ago when it was close enough to be reached with a ladder.
There was a time when we could dance until a quarter to ten
We never thought it would end then
We never thought it would end
DIRECTED BY: Leslye Headland, Jamie Babbit, Natasha Lyonne
FEATURING: Natasha Lyonne, Charlie Barnett, Greta Lee, Elizabeth Ashley
PLOT: After dying in a car accident the night of her 36th birthday, video game programmer Nadia finds herself alive once more, back at her party; a series of sudden and violent deaths demonstrate that she is trapped in a time loop, and increasing complications make it more challenging and essential that she understand why this is occurring and how she can emerge with her life and soul intact.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: “Russian Doll” is technically a TV series rather than a proper movie, and only slightly weird. It’s worth discussing, however, because it takes a shopworn premise and injects it with a combination of energy, quirk and unabashed heart that makes it feel fresh and worthy of the urge to jump into the next chapter.
COMMENTS: To even hear the plot to “Russian Doll” is to directly confront the woodchuck-shaped elephant in the room. Yes, it’s the recurring time loop, matched up with the repeated attempt to “get things right”. There may be hundreds of examples of the device across every medium, including some that ought to be listed somewhere. But one looms monolithically above the rest, the highest order of high-concept storytelling. The trope is even named after it. So if you’re gonna come at Groundhog Day, you best not miss.
It’s a measure of what a delightful experience “Russian Doll” is that not only does it not miss, it transcends this starting point to become very much its own clever, compelling creation. It does this through a combination of techniques and tricks, but the fulcrum of the whole enterprise is the impossibly-good Natasha Lyonne. With her Muppet-pelt hair, aggressively over-the-top Noo Yawk accent, and the attitude of a barely functional alcoholic with a permanent middle finger extended to the world, Nadia should not be tolerable even in eight compact episodes of television. But Lyonne has natural charm that quickly makes it apparent why her put-upon friends and rejected paramours remain drawn to her. She’s very funny (at a bar, her simple demand of the bartender is “More drunk, please”) and fiercely loyal, so much so that she frequently hurts others to spare them the greater pain she knows she tends to inflict. So once she realizes the nature of her predicament, we’re invested in her because we like her, not just because we’re eager to solve the puzzle. It helps that her redemption arc doesn’t shave off her sharp edges. (In addition to creating the show, Lyonne scripts and directs the final episode, putting her firmly in charge of her own story.) Nadia is still Nadia—sarcastic, impulsive, damaged at her very core—but she’s finding out how to be a better version of herself.
With the series’ focal point in strong hands, the show can invest in its other strengths, like a deep bench of interesting characters, a rich and absorbing lower Manhattan milieu to occupy, and a series of twists that compound the time-loop and lift the show out of the shadow of that Punxsutawney rodent.
The full shape of the streaming revolution is not yet clear, as shows have to hit a narrow sweet spot of buzzy and gimmicky just to hold on to the public’s attention. In some cases, this has resulted in series that rely on familiar brands, adapt controversial source material, or drop famous names into offkilter plots. (To say nothing of wild entries from across the sea.) What is has certainly done is inject a whole lot of why-the-hell-not bravery into a TV landscape dominated by procedurals, game shows, and rich people being awful. Streaming TV is making the tube safe for the weird, or at least the different, and while “Russian Doll” may not be the strangest thing you can find on Netflix, it goes a long way toward mainstreaming the fund of offbeat choices and audience challenges that have traditionally lived only on the fringes.
The series was co-created by Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler. A second season has been promised, which will be quite a trick. Season 1 is a shining little jewel box of a show. Having seen what I’ve seen, I’m confident in Lyonne’s abilities. But the risk is out there that the delicate balance of weird and palatable will be upended. But if they screw it up… well, I guess they can always start over.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
One has to wonder about the mindset of studio executives. Disney handed the live-action Dumbo remake over to, who hasn’t made a good movie in twenty years. Then, they assign Aladdin to Guy Ritchie, who has never made a good movie. On top of that, there’s the utter pointlessness of “live action versions” of animated classics. This one is no exception. Unless the original fell short some one way or another, why remake it (except to improve on it)? It’s especially futile when the original was so damned good. Aladdin (2019) is just a piece of crap, and the only actor who survives this embarrassment—and smells like roses, comparatively—is Nasim Pedrad as Dalia, the handmaiden of Jasmine (Naomi Scott). Why does Aladdin (Mena Massoud) prefer the personality-bankrupt Naomi over Nasim? Oh, because that’s in the script. And, Aladdin is a braindead jackass.
The original Aladdin (1992) came at the tail end of a brief Disney resurgence that began with Little Mermaid (1989) followed by Beauty and the Beast (1990). This revival came crashing down with the saccharine, run amok Lion King (1994), which of course has a live-action (sort-of) version in the works. Why does Disney keep doing this? Because fans don’t give a hoot. Aladdin has already made a zillion dollars and the undemanding Disneyphiles, who actually crave more of the same, are singing its praises all over social media.
The changes Ritchie makes are hardly worth mentioning, with two exceptions. First, he manages to solicit a dull performance from Will Smith, which is not an easy task. Understandably, Smith does not attempt to copy the fiery performance of the late, but Ritchie slaps a harness on Smith—which echoes the film itself, because the director sucks every ounce of color and fun out of the original.
Clunky, clumsy, and gray, Aladdin was an endurance test, and likely the briefest Summber blockbuster write-up I’ve given. Instantly vapid and unmemorable, it does not deserve more of my time. It does not deserve yours ether. If you’re craving the story, go back to 1992.
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.
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)
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.
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: