I’ve never had such a cordial time disagreeing with people.
Notice to the authorities: this actually could qualify as Apocrypha. Nobuhiro Yamashita’s melodrama concerns a pair a brothers: the younger, Sakon, is a successful day trader; the older, Ukon, has fallen from grace and is forced to work for an eccentric millionaire, digging in a hole looking for the legendary “shogun’s gold.” Ukon’s only friend is a simpleton also in the millionaire’s employ—that is, until they stumble across a retro-futuristic robot with a ridiculous face and a quantum processor. What makes this one weird isn’t that they stumble across the robot and wacky things happen; rather, they stumble across the robot, and it just blends in. The incongruousness of its appearance does lead to some funny scenes (the trio going to a karaoke bar was particularly hilarious), but in general the robot ends up more as a witness of the unhappiness around him—save for on two occasions. So yeah, Hard-Core is a moody, darkly funny, drama about men who have trouble relating to the world. And their robot friend.
This is a two-hour period action drama. My feeling is that it should have been closer to ninety-minutes (as period-action) or closer to three hours (as a straight-up period drama). As it stands, Yimou Zhang’s piece is fairly satisfying on both counts, helped in no small way by the dominant palette of grey. The weather throughout the movie is rainy; the costuming ranges from white to black; and the only colors to speak of are red and occasional earth tones in the final battle. Now, the combat was fun, but didn’t quite earn its place in a political chamber-thriller; the politics were intriguing, but far too truncated, especially when interrupted by the neat-o combat spectacles. I suspect you can now see the problem. Shadow is, I assure you, good. It could have been great by going further one way or the other. Or, considering everything that it hints at, it might have done better as a miniseries.
PLOT: A teenager embarks on a low-impact crime spree in support of her burgeoning social media presence, but feels pressured to escalate in the face of blistering online criticism.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Off-kilter sound, picture, and editing all combine to keep viewers on unsteady footing throughout, but Like Me ends up being a lot like the cereal its heroine grossly consumes: empty calories, all color and no nutrition.
COMMENTS: To be a creator of any kind—whether your forum be art or music or performance or, God help you, a writer of online movie reviews—is to crave an audience. Even if you yourself want no part of the attendant fame and controversy, the compulsive need to be heard remains. Sia may hide behind surreal dance routines and bichromatic wigs, Banksy might destroy his own work by remote control, even the mind behind the reboot of “Nancy” might prefer to fly under the radar, but they all still have something to say and want you to listen. You may have already noticed me , waving meekly at you in hopes that you will heed what I have to say about offbeat cinema. It’s no small knock on this writer that the most comments I have ever received on this website came not from a careful consideration of an epic montage or a dissection of the cinematic adaptation of one of theater’s seminal works, but rather for that time I caused a controversy by mentioning an alert to sensitive material with insufficient care. I mean, we all just want to be loved.
Kiya, the teenage protagonist of Robert Mockler’s debut feature, understands instinctively the importance of being heard, and she’s coming to realize how it is equally valuable to have something to actually say. Twice, she asks another character to “Tell me a story,” as if she knows that she is an empty vessel who desperately needs something hearty and substantial to fill her up and give her meaning. She never really gets that need met, though, and instead fills her days with hopelessness and her nights with making videos of humiliating pranks which a portion of the population devours as rich content.
Mockler has real visual flair. His jittery camera, rapid-fire editing, random imagery, and electrified color palette all speak to a deliberate and ambitious cinematic strategy. He isn’t shy about using his bag of tricks, most notably in a nightmare sequence where Kiya’s beat-up clunker motors through a candy-colored underwater bubblescape in a 900-degree long take, like Children of Men on shrooms. But what soon becomes apparent is that the weirdness is less of a mission than it is joint compound; cinematic spackle smoothing over the emptier, more aimless stretches of the thin plot. Unusual imagery does help put us inside the mindset of our quixotic, sometimes drug-buzzed protagonist, but more often than that it’s padding.
Like Me is undoubtedly titled ironically, as it’s next to impossible to like anyone in it. As Kiya’s online nemesis, Burt, spews venom at her online art project, it’s possible to agree with his harsh assessment of the pointlessness of her efforts and the vapidity of those who would lavish their attention on her while simultaneously concluding that he is an obnoxious blowhard. Her hostage-collaborator, Marshall, is both a pitiable figure for his predicament (I kept worrying about his unattended motel) and a wretched, pathetic loser. Even a little girl we meet at a service station is corrupt, shooting everything she sees with a toy gun “because it’s fun.” And then Kiya herself, played with real movie magnetism by Addison Timlin, is strangely the most compelling of all, managing to be intriguing despite having no clear inner life whatsoever. Not likeable at all, mind you. But fascinating.
There’s a lot of talent on display in Like Me, and enough of an understanding of the allure and the method of the wired world to give it verisimilitude rarely found in more mainstream films. But the whole of the movie is so much less than the sum of its parts; it can warn of the hollowness of our way of life or stoke incipient distaste for affirmation measured in followers and thumbs-ups. But once it has our attention with its sharp imagery and flowery language, nothing of consequence lingers. Which I guess is a red flag for all of us who insist on sharing our voices with the universe.
FEATURING: Too many actors to list individually, and no one appears onscreen for long enough to qualify as “featured”
PLOT: 26 more short horror films about death, each inspired by an assigned letter of the alphabet.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Only one out of these 26 films might qualify on its own merits as a candidate for the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made, which is not a favorable enough ratio to consider this anthology a contender.
COMMENTS: The original ABCs of Death was a somewhat successful reinvigoration of the horror anthology genre, benefiting from the novelty of the ultra-short short format. The sequel is more of the same, with a mostly second-tier (in terms of name recognition, not talent) slate of directors alphabetizing horror’s latest cemetery. One obvious improvement from the previous installment; there are hardly any toilet-themed scares here (the scat-horror fad thankfully played out in 2013). Fewer of the episodes qualify as astoundingly weird, but we’ll give you the rundown on what to watch out for.
First off, in the not-so-weird category, we have to mention neophyte director Rob Boochek’s “M is for Masticate,” winner of the fan-submission contest, whose entry (featuring a paunchy rampaging madman in stained underwear) amounts to a dumb and arguably dated joke—but one that made me laugh out loud at its perfectly-timed, abrupt punchline. Even better is Hajime Ohata’s “O is for Ochlocracy,” a clever Japanese entry which actually finds a new spin on the vastly overdone zomcom genre.
On to the weird scorecard. Todd Rohal‘s “P is for P-P-P Scary!,” is a tribute to early talkies, with three hillbilly Bowery Boys in absurd makeup and stereotypical striped prison garb cowering their way through a nameless void. It’s probably the most universally loathed segment of the film, and it’s easy to see why; Rohal’s highly personal and peculiar brand of awkward surreal comedy is an acquired taste that has yet to be acquired by almost anyone. It certainly won’t appeal to the average horror fan. The anthology ends with a weird, if relatively weak, flurry, with the action-figure inspired “W is for Wish,” the strange but inconsequential “X is for Xylophone” (which at least features Béatrice Dalle, ABC2‘s biggest star), the surreal special effects spectacle “Y is for Youth,” and the absurd pregnancy fable “Z is for Zygote.” There are a few other bizarre entries scattered about the alphabet. Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper’s “K is for Knell” is audiovisually apocalyptic but abstract and hard to connect with. Bill Plympton‘s much anticipated (by us) entry is quality, but nothing unexpected. Two scribbly lovers kiss each other to death, like a gorier version of one of his 1980s MTV shorts. “G is for Grandad” is an unclassifiable surprise tale of bizarre inter-generational rivalry from the previously unknown Jim Hosking. “Grandad” was noteworthy enough that the director parlayed this calling card into a feature film (titled The Greasy Strangler), to be released by cult-film specialist Drafthouse Films next year.
The most noteworthy episode—weird or not—is stop-motion specialist Robert Morgan‘s “D is for Deloused.” Technically impressive, it is also thoroughly surreal, taking place in a dirty lilac operating room full of bleeding men, scurrying cockroaches, and arm-sucking larvae with dual-headed clowns inside them. Nightmares don’t come much more terrifyingly irrational than this one, with a protagonist birthed from a corpse and commanded to “pay for life.” “Deloused” is the best thing in ABCs of Death 2, and it makes us long to see what the slow-working Morgan would do with a long-form project.
Overall, my judgment is that this sequel is less essential than the interesting-but-inessential original. Only Morgan’s segment rates as a must-catch for weirdophiles, while the first collection had three exceedingly bizarre entries to catch your eye. Overall, the uneven effect is about the same (although full disclosure requires me to report that most critics preferred this second installment, concluding that this crop of directors learned from the mistakes of their trailblazing predecessors).
PLOT: In an insular rural community, a malevolent pit periodically demands the sacrifice of whoever’s face appears on a jug.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The notion of a supernatural hole in the ground that demands human sacrifice is just strange enough to put Jug Face on our radar, but once you buy into the outlandish premise, the remainder of the film is a standard horror outing, not a weird film per se. This under-the-radar release is still recommended for fans of offbeat, atmospheric horror.
COMMENTS: Beginning with animated folk art titles illustrating a bloody primeval ritual, Jug Face sets out its mood, mythology and themes with extreme efficiency. In the opening scene, teenage Ada very nearly engages in illicit intercourse in the sight of the mysterious Pit from the title sequence, beginning a fearful association between that hole in the ground and female sexuality that will only get queasier as the movie progresses. (Later, Jug Face will subject us to the most disturbing of gynecological exams). The movie is set in a mythical Southern Gothic enclave where moonshine is both the sole export and a sacrament, where outsiders are shunned, and where the occasional human sacrifice is tolerated as a harsh necessity of the land. The metaphysics of the Pit are never explained (we learn nothing more about it than that it “wants what it wants”), but the devotions it demands are revealed in detail. Falling into a trance, a simple-minded potter shapes the clay into the face of the Pit’s next victim, who is dispatched according to traditions handed down from generation to generation. If the process is subverted and the Pit doesn’t get what it wants, things get hairy for the locals. The idea of a Pit-worshiping cult hiding out somewhere in a remote mountain holler may sound hard to buy, but Jug Face‘s quiet conviction puts the far-fetched material over. The detailed script has an answer for almost every question you might have—even questions you hadn’t thought to ask. The direction is confident and straightforward. Most of all, the cast is dedicated to bringing this odd community to life. A hick nerd with duct tape holding his glasses together, Dawai (Sean Bridgers) is effective as the cult’s mouth-breathing chosen potter. Indie-horror stalwart Sustin (Larry Fessenden) leads the redneck sect, but his wife Loriss holds the power in their household. Played by Sean Young (where’s she been lately?), Loriss is a small role with a big impact; this chain-smoking harridan may just be enforcing tribal norms, but she takes a sadistic pleasure in lording her petty power over her helpless children. Although Young has vicious fun with her role, Lauren Ashley Carter, as the young daughter Ada, haunted by sexual guilt, carries the film. Looking like a young Christina Ricci, permanently clad in her one dowdy grey frock, Ada’s normal teenage urges towards experimentation and rebellion put her at odds with her community. She conveys a sympathetic torment as she struggles between self-preservation and loyalty to the only moral code she’s ever known. She’s a sinner, but one we can identify with. Playing out with grim fatalism, like a cross between Winter’s Bone and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Jug Face creates a unique folk mythology and is filled with an creepy sense of backwoods doom. It’s a promising debut for writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle.
As of this writing, Jug Face is available for viewing via video-on-demand outlets. It receives a limited theatrical run in August and is scheduled to show up on DVD and Blu-ray in October.
PLOT: In this re-imagining of the “Christ-sploitation” films shown in churches and
probably a few Southern gynecologists’ offices of the 60s and 70s, we follow a young man and woman who make all the wrong choices in a haze of drugs, alcohol, and rock music while unknowingly under the influence of two demonic imps.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Satan Hates You, while initially very jarring in its lack of self-explanation, is a satisfying experience in terms of its Troma-esque shock horror and its acute satirical edge. But its freaky imagery leans too often on a bland naturalistic style that mars its individuality and chokes the weirdness out of the movie.
COMMENTS: Satan Hates You is a very hard film to place. Being a satire, a dark comedy, and a horror film is no ordinary pedigree, and Satan Hates You maniacally shifts from one of these genres to the next every few minutes. It is a wicked send-up of those fear-mongering Christian PSA films that pop into existence every generation about the dangers of doing ungodly things like having abortions and doing drugs. But it honestly doesn’t hit you that way when you watch it if you don’t do your research. The first time watching it, I felt this to just be a dark, meandering horror-comedy about two idiots who make a lot of bad choices. Director James Felix McKenney doesn’t really go out of his way to make this idea pop out at the audience with staples of the “Christ-sploitation” genre, like cheesy acting, an oversimplification of right and wrong, and loads of self-righteous condemnation. We are instead tossed quite objectively into these people’s lives, full of sex, murder, and self-sabotage, and don’t get dropped many hints that we’re supposed to be in on a joke.