Tag Archives: Musical

CAPSULE: NEPTUNE FROST (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Anisia Uzeyman, Saul Williams

FEATURING: Cheryl Isheja, Bertrand Ninteretse (AKA Kaya Free), Elvis Ngabo

PLOT: In an alternate-reality African nation, an escaped coltan miner teams up with an intersexed refugee to hack global information systems through their dreams.

Still from Neptune Frost (2021)COMMENTS: Neptune Frost‘s scenario involves an authoritarian crackdown in an imaginary African country; a resistance movement composed of university students, refugees, and escaped coltan miners; and global hacking accomplished in dreams. With a first act that indiscriminately flips back and forth between two different on-the-run protagonists, one of whom is played by two actors, and dialogue spoken and sung in five different languages, Neptune Frost loses viewers in its thickets early on. And that’s before the first big musical number—in which a dream spirit transports the dreamer into a black-lit, monitor-lined room festooned with spinning rainbow bicycle wheels and advises him (later her) to “hack” into abstract systems like land rights, labor, and greed—even occurs. The film is aware of its own difficulty: a third of the way through, a character addresses the viewer directly: “Maybe you’re asking yourself WTF is this? A poet’s idea of a dream?”

Persevere through the confusion, or at least get yourself into a headspace where you’re not invested in everything adding up in a rational way, and you’ll find much to appreciate in Neptune Frost. Foremost is the music, which ranges from work songs (which carry over into protest songs) to dreamy electronica-based trance chants, and eventually full-bore hip-hop bashes. The African setting—landscapes, dress, flora and fauna—fosters a unique language of images. The costuming tends to the bizarre: background characters have keyboard parts and diodes glued to their clothes and faces, a spirit has a head enclosed in a semicircular wicker cage, the state’s brutal police favor pink uniforms, and Neptune herself sometimes has a bird’s nest on her shoulder. As it progresses, the movie throws datastreams of glitchy cybernetic psychedelia at the screen to represent its mystical hack of the global order. The narrative remains hard-to-follow all the way to the end, but themes of technology, gender, colonialism, and DIY revolutionary politics (local, global, and imaginary) float in and out of the mix. The film’s aesthetic may be Afrofuturist, but its style is Afrosurrealist.

Truthfully, there is almost too much to process in Neptune Frost: both the characters and the events can be a chore to sort out. The film’s concepts are half-hidden in a haze of impressionistic poetry and song (with phrases such as “binary crime,” “martyr loser king,” and “unanimous goldmine” carrying obscure significance); although at other times, messages are delivered bluntly (one song bears the refrain, “fuck Mr. Google”). It’s no surprise to learn that writer Saul Williams is a poet and musician. If Neptune Frost sometimes feels like a concept album brought to life, that may be because there is one: Williams’ 2016 left-field rap album Martyrloserking (and two sequels), plus a graphic novel. This world is much wider than the slice we see in the film, and further exploration may yield more answers than are given here. Neptune Frost comes achingly close to a general “” rating, and also to a “” rating. But ultimately, while impressive, I think the project’s appeal is decidedly niche: fans of Afrofuturism, proponents pf progressive (verging on radical) politics, and advocates of African film in general (of which we have far too few examples). If you’re not in one of those groups, but have adventurous tastes in cinema and are up for a challenge, then Neptune Frost is also a worthwhile visit: there is truly nothing quite like it out there.

Neptune Frost opens June 3 in New York City and Dallas, expanding to additional art-house theaters through June. We’ll let you know when streaming options get sorted out.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a bold, bizarre, and unflinchingly confident debut that prompts its audience to interrogate the very real human costs of the information age through the speculative lens of a future both vastly different and uncannily similar to our own.”–Toussaint Egan, Polygon (festival screening)

CAPSULE: ADAM BY EVE: A LIVE IN ANIMATION (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Nobutaka Yoda, Hibiki Yoshizaki, Yuichiro Saeki

FEATURING: Hanon, Ano, Eve

PLOT: A story about a friendship between two schoolgirls, Taki and Aki, and their shared dream of a one-eyed monster serves as a framing device for a series of songs by the Japanese pop singer Eve.

Still from Adam by Eve: A Live In Animation (2022)

COMMENTS: It begins with two schoolgirls discussing dreams in a diner. (Where would take that premise?) Taki relates a dream of a one-eyed monster, then leaves to get the girls a refill on their tea. Suddenly, Aki realizes she’s had the exact same dream.(Later, she will overhear people on a public bus describing an identical nocturnal vision.) Aki looks up and the diner is deserted; Taki is gone. Aki’s voiceover tells us she never heard from Taki again. A peppy guitar riff begins playing, Aki pines for Taki, and eventually a music video commandeers the screen.

And so it will go: little bits of story alternating with longer stretches of music by Eve. Eve is a camera-shy presence, commonly shot from behind so that we see only his shaggy blond mane, or seen in silhouette, or with his face hidden deep inside a shadowy hood, or with a bullhorn posed before his face as he shouts a particularly enthusiastic verse. The creativity required to constantly find new ways to shroud his identity is impressive. Musically, I suppose he’s competent; his tongue is fluid and precise as he drops cascades of syllables, with every song delivered in the same uptempo style, half-rapped, half-sung. Eve’s voice is pleasant but nothing special, although as a 53-year old American male who favors avant-garde jazz, I’m about as far away from his target demographic of teenage Japanese girls as possible. Despite the bubblegum sound, Eve’s lyrics tend towards the melancholic—not to mention the vague. (“It hurts, this restless center of a flower.”)

Those who aren’t fans in particular of Eve’s music will be tuning in for the animation, which doesn’t disappoint. First, a flock of animated white doves fly before the hooded singer. Then, brief inserts of anime characters pop in, happily hopping along to the beat. With each new song these characters and abstract whirligigs share more of the screen with the singer, overlaid on live concert footage, taking up more and more of the stage, swirling in patterns that obscure Eve almost entirely. The eye symbol, in various forms (e.g. briefly blinking into and out of existence on a skyscraper), begins to dominate the imagery, until we finally arrive at the film’s 6-minute all-animated centerpiece. A city of schoolgirls and schoolboys, equipped with happy-faced masks that flop in front of their real faces, share a city with tall, identical cyclopes: conformist youth flanked by fascist elders. But, using combat skills they learned from first person shooters, the kids revolt and slaughter their monster overlords, in a carnival of carnage recalling Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0 scored to a techno beat. More music videos in the accustomed style wind down the action, and as a bonus, a second full-length animated short plays over the closing credits.

The title suggests the story of Adam and Eve, but aside from a few stray apples seen lying about, you won’t find much in that line of inquiry. Clearly, it’s Eve’s poppy music and the psychedelic anime routines that are the draw here. But the thin narrative does at least suggest themes of teen love, teen alienation, teen sexuality, and teen suicide, with a sly queer slant. Good stuff for the young, but even us crusty Gen-Xers could screen a lot worse entertainment in an hour.

Adam by Eve: A Live in Animation currently streams exclusively on Netflix.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… simply looking at its fluid, fascinating collision of dreams with reality, it’s a satisfyingly bold adult animation project, one interested less in clear narrative, and more in visual expression for its own sake.”–Kambole Campbell, Polygon (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: GUTBOY: A BADTIME STORY (2017)

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Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Nick Grant

FEATURING: David Homyk, MaryBeth Schroeder, voices of Will Cooper, Nick Reed, Misty Foster, Megan Rosen, Anthony Herrera

PLOT: Goot is tricked into selling his skin to Besto, and seeks revenge with the help of a similarly skinless “mermaid.”

Still from Gutboy: a Badtime Story (2017)

COMMENTS: Gutboy is a strange little creature, and the star of a strange little movie that occupies an odd niche on this site’s recommendation spectrum. The movie is slight and casual and doesn’t feel weighty or significant enough to challenge for a spot on our list of the weirdest films ever; and yet, it’s so darn weird that nearly every serious reader of this site will find something to enjoy in it. The “” tag affixed here is, therefore, an attempt to bring attention to this worthy amateur effort, while acknowledging that it doesn’t fit alongside some of the more serious or professional titles honored here.

Not that the movie doesn’t actually earn that “weirdest!” designation. (In fact, some argue that it works too hard for it.) Framed as a story told by an emcee to a sick boy who’s wheeled out before an audience of insects, the plot involves a fisherman tricked into selling his skin, who then immediately hooks a “mermaid” (a similarly skinless woman given to lines like “you learn a lot of things on the ocean floor… like how to please a man”) who tires to seduce him, and also grants him a wish. Gutboy doesn’t think to ask for his skin back, but instead asks to marry the policeman’s daughter. And the story just keeps getting odder when skin-merchant Besto breaks out his giants (portrayed by a well-toned couple of real live humans spray-painted gold) to wrestle for his amusement. Oh yes, and there are also musical numbers, ranging from show tunes to rockabilly and lo-fi punk and pop.

So yeah, it’s pretty strange. The marionettes are appropriately crude and grotesque: Gutboy and his paramour (who, after a brain-swapping mishap, becomes known as “Sophieguts Prettybutts”) look genuinely bloody, and for some reason have exposed brains. The other puppets are all quite ugly, too, bulbous and vaguely resembling antique Eastern European dolls, with sunken wooden eyes covered in black mold. The puppeteering is not particularly accomplished, but it doesn’t matter, given the project’s insouciant attitude. Any movie in which a wooden hooker on strings sings the line “porking me ain’t easy, and diddling me ain’t fun” isn’t aiming for much beyond cheap amusement.

The kitchen sink approach often turns a would-be weird movie into a unwatchable mess, but here it works to Gutboy‘s advantage, with each new quirk catching your attention, but not completely derailing the loose worldbuilding efforts. The movie is also helped immensely by its economical runtime: take out the four-minute introduction and the ten-minute post-credits “Titus Andronicus”-themed bonus short, and it runs just under an hour. Any longer, and it might have started to try your patience.

It might not surprise you to learn that Gutboy was a crowdfunded project. It played well enough in limited screenings that picked it up for distribution. It can now be seen free on Amazon Prime for subscribers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a triplike piece of weirdness that defies all sorts of logic – and that’s exactly why it works so well…”–Mike Haberfelner, (re) Search My Trash

EVERYBODY’S GOT THE RIGHT TO BE DIFFERENT: STEPHEN SONDHEIM (1930-2021)

The film was a very British Guignol called Hangover Square, the story of a composer with a tendency to commit murder when stressed. The climax of the film is a performance of the composer’s concerto (actually the work of the legendary Bernard Herrmann), which culminates in his death in a cataclysmic inferno, still banging away at the piano. It’s not subtle.

Stephen SondheimFor the adolescent watching this tale unfold, it was a formative experience. He was so captivated by the dark story and Herrmann’s score that he rushed back to the moviehouse to watch the whole thing again in hopes of memorizing the sheet music to the villain’s composition. He wrote Herrmann a fan letter, which the recipient acknowledged was an unusual treat for a film composer. And years later, that young man had the opportunity to pay homage to his inspiration by using a familiar Herrmann chord throughout the score of a musical he had written, which just so happened to be about a murderous barber whose victims become the main ingredient in meat pies.

Stephen Sondheim was a noted cinephile, so it makes sense that movies would have a prominent role in his career. He was, of course, primarily a figure of the stage; long before his passing at the age of 91, he had cemented his reputation as perhaps the most significant creator in the history of American-style musical theater. But he got to indulge his love of film directly more than once; he won an Oscar for the song he contributed to the mélange of color and makeup that was Dick Tracy, he co-wrote the all-star puzzle box The Last of Sheila, and six of his shows made the jump to the silver screen, albeit none entirely successfully. He also made an impression on other filmmakers; audiences were treated to surprise appearances recently in films as diverse as Lady Bird, Knives Out, and Marriage Story. So although not a creature of film, he certainly made his mark.

But what am I doing here, talking about a Broadway composer on a weird movie website? Well, I think Stephen Sondheim has something to teach us about the role that personal vision and committed interest play in making a thing weird. Because while his reputation as the giant of American musical theater may rest on a foundation of rich, adventurous melodies and breathtakingly gymnastic and insightful lyrics, the thing that always kept him apart from the establishment – that marked him as an iconoclast of the highest order and denied him a true blockbuster – was his taste in material. No light comedies or mindless spectacles for him. His most dance-heavy show features tragic murders to end both acts. In search of pure comedy, he adapts plays that are 2,000 years old. Ask him to bring a movie to the stage and he’ll turn to an Italian film about a soldier is ensnared by the obsessive love of an ugly, sickly woman. Welcome to Broadway!

Even by Sondheim standards, my first experience with one of his shows was a doozy: a college production of Merrily We Roll Along, a story of lost idealism and the cost of one’s soul that has the temerity to unspool its tale in reverse chronological order. This stylistic Continue reading EVERYBODY’S GOT THE RIGHT TO BE DIFFERENT: STEPHEN SONDHEIM (1930-2021)

CAPSULE: ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979)

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DIRECTED BY: Allan Arkush

FEATURING: P. J. Soles, Dey Young, Vincent Van Patten, Clint Howard, Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, The Ramones

PLOT: Riff Randell battles the punk-hating administration at her high school by invoking the musical powers of her favorite band, The Ramones.

Still from Rock 'n Roll High School (1979)

COMMENTS: The Ramones were icons of minimalism. Progenitors of punk, they pioneered a sound that was somehow both retro and revolutionary, delivering two-chord, two-minute landmarks that had none of the feel of craft and all of the sensation of having been spewed out of the most primal reaches of the band members’ autonomic nervous systems. Everything about them was reduced to its bare essentials: a basic guitar-bass-drum setup, fronted by a flat, nasal vocal that was tuneful while making no pretensions to being musical, presented by a group that spoke to punk’s fierce independence with a façade of careful uniformity, from the matching leather jackets and torn jeans to the identical messy face-obscuring Kate Jackson hairstyles, and even extending to their manufactured noms de théâtre. Everything about them was carefully engineered to celebrate everybody by being nobody.

So the notion that the Ramones would be the centerpiece of a bubbly teenager’s every waking moment is a little dissonant. And that they would somehow come to have an entire feature film devoted to them—one with a substantial cult following—is nothing short of bizarre. It’s the domain of old people to complain that the kids are making idols out of empty shells, but the emptiness of the Ramones is part of their very essence. They’re almost antithetical to the idea of teenybop worship. To watch P J. Soles’ Riff Randell—a veritable firehose of giddy hyperactivity—go gaga for this quartet of empty t-shirts is to plunge headlong through the looking glass. Try to imagine a Disney Channel original movie where a precocious 12-year old learns self-confidence through the power of her favorite band, and that band turns out to be GWAR. (Note to Disney: Please greenlight this. I will absolutely write the script for you.)

But for the purposes of the Roger Corman film factory, the Ramones hardly matter. They’re answer to a Mad Lib wherein [INSERT NAME OF BAND] inspires kids to overthrow those dullard grownups. (It’s telling that Corman’s original suggestion was center the film around disco music, an idea that would have been truly transgressive if it had been filmed two years earlier and dared to address the politics of race and sexual orientation endemic to the genre.) Rock ‘n’ Roll High School has one goal, and it’s to tell the kids how much cooler they are than those stick-in-the-mud adults. And if we have to put our thumb on the scale to make the old people especially dorky and uncool, well hey, that’s just Roger Corman being a smart businessman.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the kind of movie that Rock ‘n’ Continue reading CAPSULE: ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ANNETTE (2021)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Leos Carax

FEATURING: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg

PLOT: After the birth of his daughter, Henry McHenry’s life slides irreversibly into the abyss.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: No, not because the daughter is a puppet. That’s just a convenient, albeit perfect, metaphor for Annette, the character.  Annette the film is an example of distillation in the extreme. It condenses opera’s operaticness to its essence, stand-up comedy to its essence, and so on. Musicals, as a genre, have a lot of leeway that often keep us from considering them as “weird.” However, here the director and screenwriters kick the substance of style as substance into overdrive, making something that is as emotionally affecting as its trappings are meaningfully superfluous.

COMMENTS: “So, may we start?” asks the director in front of a studio mixing board. Cue the screen-/score-writers, Ron and Russ Mael. As the proem is sung, the leads enter the scene. The cast and crew proceed into the streets singing, continuing the opening number before kneeling in front of the camera and then dispersing into the actual action of the story. It’s a spectacle of choreographed artifice, laying bare the central conceit of Annette: this is a performance. There are plenty of musicals about musicals. There are meta-movies. Leos Carax is capturing both in this glorious two-for-one deal, which first shows you all its components before proceeding to confound you anyway. And while this is certainly a Carax picture, he is like the celebrity chef working from the ingredients gathered by the Maels (who record as “Sparks”) over their decades-long career.

The story is so Hollywood that it almost hurts. Stand-up comic and big-time celebrity Henry McHenry falls in love with Ann Defrasnoux, a beloved opera singer; they marry, have a child (more on that later), and tragedy ensues. Why? Because this is opera; this is opera so deep down to its pathos-impacted core that its plot arc is as predictable as it is fundamental. The tragedy of Annette is deeper than it is “large”; no gods, no epic events, just emotional deterioration speeding into spiritual collapse. So it’s Hollywood, and it’s opera. And it’s always playing footsie with the absurd. Annette‘s hook, at least its main one, is that the titular character is a wooden puppet who sings by the light of the moon.

Under normal circumstances, this is where the “uncanny valley” remarks would go. But seeing as this story is neck-deep in the very essence (bordering on apotheosis) of every other element—songs, performance, melodrama, lighting—Annette being a marionette makes perfect sense. As a character, she is controlled not by herself, but by her parents. This ding an sich-ing (she is literally a puppet) is in keeping with what Carax and the Maels are up to. Is there a “true love” duet-montage? You bet there is. And virtually all the lyrics are the words, “We’re so in love”. When Annette becomes a star, there’s a requisite travel montage which echoes the lyrically scant duet from before, with the lines “We’re traveling ’round the world” sung while they… travel around the world. At times the filmmakers beg forgiveness for having to interrupt their emotional archetypes with plot—an important character apologizes a number of times during his expositionary monologue for breaking his speech to perform his job of conducting an orchestra.

This makes him a perfect stand-in for the creators. And his ultimate fate also suggests the perils of the creative process, as characters take on a life of their own and throw a spanner in the works. There have been, and will be, superior movie musicals, but few others revel so fundamentally in the core of performance as a genre. This is a story that hides neither its nature nor its ambitions. And the skill level of its authors—writers, directors, and players—leaves the audience completely in their control.

An Amazon Studios production, Annette debuted for free on Amazon Prime after its 2021 Cannes premiere and brief theatrical run.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a thoroughly banana cakes musical romance… If you sometimes go to the movies to feel unsettled, perplexed, and amused—not to mention get a peek at an often-shirtless and always-brooding Adam Driver—Annette might be the weird one you’ve been waiting for.”–Dana Stevens, Slate (contemporaneous)