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18*. GREEN SNAKE (1993)

 Ching se

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“Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility, to feel honoured?”–D.H. Lawrence, “Snake”

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Maggie Cheung, Joey Wang, Wenzhuo Zhao, Hsing-Kuo Wu

PLOT: After imprisoning the soul of a shapeshifting spider in a bowl, a monk spares the lives of two snakes, one white and one green. The two snakes take human form, seeking to learn the wisdom of our species. White falls in love with a scholar, while Green is more mischievous and seductive; eventually, the monk regrets sparing the pair, and seeks to banish them to their old forms.

Still from Green Snake (1993)

BACKGROUND:

  • As a director, and perhaps even more importantly as a producer, Tsui Hark is one of the key figures in the Hong Kong New Wave of the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Hark wrote the screenplay based on Lilian Lee Pik-Wah’s novel, which was itself based on an ancient Chinese legend. In the original tale the Green Snake is a subordinate character to the White Snake, but in the novel and movie they are of approximately equal importance.
  • The same folktale was the basis for The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011) with Jet Li, and the recent Chinese animated hits White Snake (2019) and Green Snake (2021).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: An amazing moment occurs when meditating monk Fa-hai is bedeviled by lustful demons, who appear to him as bald women in skintight cat suits. Shocked when one appears in his lap, he leaps ten feet into the air in front of his giant Buddha statue, then fights the felines off with a flaming sword while they taunt him.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Monk tempted by pussies; snake joins a Bollywood dance number

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Tsui Hark has style to spare, but spares none of it in this feverish epic filled with Taoist magic and Buddhist mysticism. A spectacle for the ages, Green Snake goes beyond the merely exotic into the realm of the hallucinatory.


UK trailer for Green Snake (1993)

COMMENTS: Green Snake gives you everything you could want in a Continue reading 18*. GREEN SNAKE (1993)

CHANNEL 366: I THINK YOU SHOULD LEAVE WITH TIM ROBINSON (2019-2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Alice Mathias, Akiva Schaffer, Zach Kanin, Mike Diva, Zachary Johnson, Jeffrey Max

FEATURING: Tim Robinson

PLOT: A series of characters confront a world that does not welcome their honesty, bluntness, or failure to comprehend simple-yet-unspoken rules of social interaction.

Still from "I Think You SHould Leave with Tim Robinson" (2021)

COMMENTS: It’s hard to imagine a sketch show opening with a more fully realized statement of purpose than the one that kicks off Tim Robinson and Zach Kanin’s smorgasbord of cringe comedy. Having completed what looks to be a successful job interview in a coffee shop, a man makes his exit. However, he mistakenly pulls on a door which clearly swings out. Desperate to save face, he continues to pull, in the face of gentle correction from his interviewer and the increasing stress and strain from the effort. Ultimately, the fear of humiliation gives him the strength to break the door’s hinges, forcing it to swing inward. It’s a huge relief. Anything, anything to not be wrong.

That combination of aggressive awkwardness and interpersonal incompetence struck a nerve. Season 1 of “I Think You Should Leave,” in particular, proved to be a goldmine for viral jokes, especially in an age when our leaders seemed similarly inclined to do whatever damage was necessary in order to not be thought a fool. Meme-able highlights include a woman who fails to comprehend the subtleties of Instagram snark, a dabbing old man who derails a car focus group with absurd complaints, and a man in a hot dog costume who steadfastly refuses to acknowledge any responsibility for the wreck of his encased-meat mobile. Combined with the binge-friendly 15-minute running time of each episode, Season 2 was almost certainly inevitable.

That season has arrived, and fans of the first set of episodes will be pleased to know that Robinson’s taste for the ridiculous and the bizarre has not abated. If anything, he’s doubled-down on the bad behaviors and convention-flouting characters that made an initial splash. To be sure, some formulas are repeated: a spot urging cable viewers to demand they carry a channel devoted primarily to a funeral blooper show evokes an earlier commercial for a personal injury law firm with a very specific area of expertise. A shirt with a built-in tugging rope pairs nicely with a new garment that sells for upwards of $2,000 based entirely on its garish and increasingly complex patterns. Robinson’s fellow Detroiter Sam Richardson even returns in a new twist on his “Baby of the Year” appearance, this time hosting a misguided corporate entertainment that invites executives at a management retreat to pick the champion “Little Buff Boy” from a selection of preening pre-teen boys in muscle suits.

But new twists abound, frequently revolving around men who have reached the limits of their ability to cope with a world they don’t understand. A video explaining ear-piercing to young girls is mashed-up with a gruff old man’s lifelong regrets. A diner customer seizes on a white lie as a chance to fictionalize a life where he collects multiple versions of the same car. A devoted husband is wrecked by the betrayal of joining in his friends’ sexist jokes about their wives. Robinson himself is overcome with ennui immediately upon donning ill-fitting old makeup for a prank show. If most of the show’s characters are scorned for their refusal to follow social convention, the ones who play by the rules don’t seem any happier.

The essential elements of “I Think You Should Leave” are all in place: People behave awfully, and then blame others. They flout the rules of convention, and then forcefully reject society’s disapproval by championing themselves as bastions of freedom and justice. How dare you ask Santa Claus about his holiday gig when he’s here to promote his new action-revenge thriller? Where do you get off firing a man just because he tries to eat a hot dog hidden away in his sleeve, denies doing so, and then chokes on the link and throws up on a co-worker’s luggage? Doesn’t the recipient of a multi-million dollar personal injury award deserve a place as one of the rough-and-tumble investors on a “Shark Tank”-style show as much as some by-their bootstraps entrepreneur? Even a child’s doll lies to deflect shame. “I Think You Should Leave”’s characters are consistently awful at the job of being decent human beings, and they absolutely blame you.

Nothing may typify Robinson’s comedy more than a sketch about a haunted house tour in which the guide unwittingly trumpets the adults-only hour and encourages the guests to “say whatever you want.” Robinson’s tourist, taking the instruction literally, seizes the opportunity to bellow off-color (and seemingly unrelated) references to horse anatomy. But while the joke may end there, the sketch continues as Robinson tries with increasing despair to get it right. Ultimately, and not surprisingly, he is booted from the tour, and he leaves to the tune of a sad piano, utterly perplexed at his fate. The show’s title may reflect to message we convey to those who don’t fit in, but Robinson offers pity to all those rejects, no matter how much carnage they leave in their wake.

“I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson” streams on Netflix.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the enduring appeal of I Think You Should Leave doesn’t rest in the question of which sketches work and which don’t. It’s more about the way viewers get drawn into its bizarro universe. It’s a world plagued by comic magicians, imbalanced nacho-sharing, and an aggressive baby named Bart Harley Jarvis. In this vision of comedy, the most mundane social missteps are the principal causes of human anguish. In season 2, Robinson and Kanin stay that course, and the best bits are the ones that exploit a simple, weird concept in ways that play on the successes of the first season, but still find surprising elements.”–Brianna Zigler, Polygon (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: MOBY DOC (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Rob Gordon Bralver

FEATURING: Moby,

PLOT: A wandering, essay-style autobiographical documentary by musician Moby, who discusses his career, his alcoholism, and his veganism in a series of sketches that range from comic to philosophical.

Still from Moby Doc (2021)

COMMENTS: “I know we’ve been in a fairly conventional narrative for a while, but now we’re going to go back to being weird,” sings Moby, accompanying himself on banjo, at about the twenty minute mark. We then see him dressed as a Buddhist monk, walking down an L.A. street striking a bowl with a rod while a group in white robes and animal masks follows him. Alternating typical documentary techniques with weirdo tableaux is the method here, but while there is plenty of rambunctious imagination to the sketches, this isn’t quite the “surrealist biographical documentary” it’s pitched as. Moby Doc is not surrealist, although it contains the fleetingly surreal imagery you’d catch in any modern music video. It is, more accurately, a “collagist biographical documentary,” a story that moves logically and chronologically through Moby’s life and career, but proceeds by stitching together scraps of information cast in different styles and textures. Thus, we have Moby monologues, comic psychodramas where miscast New York actors play Moby’s parents, appreciations from David Lynch, career-spanning concert footage, staged therapy sessions, humorous one-way telephone conversations, space shuttle footage, grandiose shots of Moby standing alone atop a majestic mesa, animated bits, a -esque gag where Moby talks to Death, and a tribute to the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” video.

As someone with a casual acquaintance with Moby—a few tracks from “Play,”  downloaded on mp3 a decade after they were recorded, have made it into my rotation, and I knew virtually nothing of the artist behind them—I think this documentary may play better for people like me than for longtime fans. Rabid followers have heard all these stories before (the musician has already published two memoirs), and there’s not much new music here. The quirky presentation, tailored to a cultured rather than a mass audience, means it serves well as an introduction to those of us with a marginal interest in the musician. Well aware that he is aging out of dance floor relevance, Moby seeks to rebrand himself as an elder statesman and Serious Artist: thus, the recent concert footage of orchestral arrangements of his electronica hits.

As candid as Moby is about his hedonistic excesses—the middle section of the film is peppered with unflattering AA-styled confessions, some involving poop—critics point out that parts of his history are whitewashed or ignored (a scandal involving goes unmentioned). Such spin is to be expected in a self-funded vanity project. The bigger issue is how you respond to the narcissist paradox at the film’s core. which may determine how well you like the film (and, by extension, how well you like Moby). He begins the film by announcing he intends to explore nothing less than “the why of everything,” but then, naturally, proceeds to explore nothing more than the why of Moby. He realizes that he is addicted to fame, confessing how bad reviews and “kill yourself” troll comments wound him, and reveals that he aggrandizes his image in order to compensate for feelings of inadequacy. He wants to share universal wisdom—much of it genuine—-with the viewer, but he has enough self-awareness to realize that this mission will inevitably make him look pompous. He compensates with little self-deprecating jokes: when he talks about his music as a form of self-healing, he cuts to a reaction shot of his fake therapist stifling a yawn.

So Moby Doc ultimately becomes a lavish, 90-minute, million dollar humble brag. This could understandably rub some people the wrong way. But I relate to Moby’s dilemma: everyone has something to teach others, everyone has valuable life-lessons to share, but how can we do this without looking presumptuous and egotistical? Comic irony is the go-to strategy, and Moby deploys it as well as he can. So instead of being a recitation of rock-n-roll clichés about an artist seduced by fame, money, and pleasures of the flesh who goes through some shit and comes out the other end rededicated to his Art, Moby Doc is an obfuscational comedy: Pink Floyd the Wall with a sense of humor. And that’s not a bad thing; it’s probably as much profundity as a man who’s lifelong passion is to make music for teenagers to shake their asses to can hope to produce.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a self-portrait, an acid flashback, a therapy session, a rumination, and a surrealist music-video package all rolled into one.”–Owen Gleiberman, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DAY OF THE BEAST (1995)

El día de la bestia

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Santiago Segura, Armando De Razza

PLOT: A priest decides he must become a great sinner as part of a scheme to summon the Devil and stop the Apocalypse; he enlists a death metal fan and a TV occultist to help him.

Still from Day of the Beast (1995)

COMMENTS: Cult favorite Day of the Beast builds its story around a trinity of characters, who become sort of the three anti-wise men at the nativity of the Antichrist. Having discovered the place and date of the Antichrist’s birth (typical of copycat Satan, it’s to be on Christmas Day), priest Angel enacts a plan to draw the devil’s attention by committing as many sins as possible. His apprentice crimes involve him stealing a beggar’s alms and assaulting a helpless mime (an act that shows how poor his grasp of the idea of “evil” really is). Angel knows he needs help to get that real, gnarly aura of wickedness, so he seeks out death metal records to play backwards; impressed with his musical taste, dimwitted and instinctually sinful record clerk Jose Maria agrees to tag along on the apostate’s adventures. Now, the duo need only recruit occultist television charlatan Cavan to teach them the necessary rituals to summon Old Scratch.

Of course, that requires them to convince a reluctant Cavan to join them… and to acquire the blood of a virgin and other items necessary for the ritual. Around the halfway mark, things get truly wild; de la Iglesia picks up the pace, sending his trio through an obstacle course that sees them fending off a matron with a shotgun and hanging off a neon billboard atop a skyscraper. Along the way there are a few genuinely weird scenes: a naked LSD-scarfing grandpa, and a trip to a convenience store where the staff has been dispatched by an anarchist murder cult. But mostly, the film is a series of black comedy hijinks and effective Satanic horror imagery (the devil is depicted both by a real goat and by a man in a goat costume). It’s quite a ride: subversive, but with comic characters you actually like and root for.

This was de la Iglesia’s sophomore feature and is typical of his output: genre pictures with strong characterizations, brutal violence, transgressive imagery, dark humor, and complex, fast-paced plots. They all have a / energy to them that might be best described more as “wild” than “weird.” Perhaps we should consider de la Iglesia’s work “weird-adjacent.” Whatever you call it, it’s well worth checking out.

El día de la bestia  was a big success in Spain, even notching a Best Director Goya (and five other awards, too, although not Best Picture). Unfortunately, other than a successful international film festival run, it did not screen much outside of its native land, and was poorly distributed on home video, not even scoring a region 1 DVD release. Severin rectified this absence in 2021 with a Blu-ray edition of Day of the Beast (along with another rarely-seen de la Iglesia movie, 1997’s Perdita Durango). Along with a newly restored print, the deluxe release contains a feature-length “making of” documentary, interviews with de la Iglesia and select cast and crew, and most substantially, de la Iglesia’s 1990 short film “Mirandas Asesinas,” an antique-looking B&W horror comedy featuring Álex Angulo as a literal-minded psychopath.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… appealingly unrefined, this serving of satanic excess and good-naturedly dumb humor should please young audiences with a taste for off-the-wall cult fare.”–David Rooney, Variety (contemporaneous)

14*. THE BABY OF MÂCON (1993)

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RecommendedBeware

DIRECTED BY: Peter Greenaway

FEATURING: Julia Ormond, Ralph Fiennes, Philip Stone, Jonathan Lacey, Frank Egerton

PLOT: A passion-play performed in 17th-century Florence tells the story of a child born to a geriatric woman. The old woman’s daughter claims to be the child’s virgin mother and makes brisk business selling the “miraculous” infant’s blessings, while the local bishop’s son suspiciously observes her. Meanwhile, the local nobles in the audience interact with the onstage proceedings.

BACKGROUND:

  • The film was partially inspired by an uproar surrounding an advertising campaign that featured a newborn baby still attached to its umbilical cord. Greenaway was perplexed by the public’s reaction, and set out to create an unflinching depiction of the actual evils of murder and rape.
  • The Catholic Church revoked permission for the film crew to shoot in the Cologne Cathedral after Greenaway’s previous film, The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, & her Lover, aired on German television two days before shooting was to begin.
  • The Baby of Mâcon premiered at Cannes, but was seldom seen after that. Although it booked some dates in Europe, no North American distributor would agree to take on the film due to its subject matter. To this day it has still not been released on physical media in Region 1/A, although it finally became available for streaming in the 2020s.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It is a perennial challenge to choose one image from a Greenaway picture; he regards film as a visual medium, not a tool to adapt literature. The shot of the bored young aristocrat, Cosimo de Medici, knocking over the two-hundred-and-eighth pin, signifying the end to the erstwhile virgin’s gang-rape, best merges Greenaway’s sense of mise-en-scène, his disgust for authority, and his undercurrent of odd humor.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Body secretion auction; death by gang-rape

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Fusing the most ornate costumes this side of the Baroque era with organized religion at its worst, The Baby of Mâcon is a lushly beautiful, sickening indictment of a fistful of humanity’s evils. Stylized stage performances integrate increasingly seamlessly with the side-chatter of (comparatively) modern viewers’ commentary who concurrently desire to take part in the make-believe. Greenaway moves his actors and their audience around each other with an expertise matched only by the growing moral horror developing onscreen.


Short clip from The Baby of Mâcon

COMMENTS: As the audience for The Baby of Mâcon, we bear witness to its iniquities. As witnesses, we bear responsibility: responsibility for the fraudulence of the baby’s aunt when she alleges she’s Continue reading 14*. THE BABY OF MÂCON (1993)

CAPSULE: THE PLANTERS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Alexandra Kotcheff, Hannah Leder

FEATURING: Alexandra Kotcheff, Hannah Leder, Phil Parolisi, Pepe Serna

PLOT: Emotionally-stunted Martha Plant is a terrible telemarketer and prefers her side hustle of burying junk in the desert for treasure hunters to dig up; things change when she offers her spare room to a recently released mental patient with multiple personalities.

Still from The Planters (2019)

COMMENTS: The appropriately named Martha Plant is an odd woman with an odder passion: she shoplifts souvenir shop trinkets, buries them in the desert, posts the GPS coordinates on a lonely bulletin board, and then digs them up later to find the cash left behind by grateful treasure hunters. (“It’s one of the most successful enterprises in the area,” she brags.) Martha is such a great crackpot that all she needs is an equally oddball sidekick, and the script almost writes itself. Enter Sadie, who literally comes careening down a sand dune, padlocked into a bicycle helmet and carrying a red suitcase, and crashes into Martha, the only landmark visible for miles. Laid-back, whimsical wackiness ensues.

Well, there are a couple more complications. One, Sadie has been released—or rather, cut loose—from a mental hospital that’s gone bankrupt. And she has multiple personalities, which show up over the course of the film. Two, while working at her day job selling air conditioners by phone, Martha develops a friendship with a lonely widower who’s just as socially awkward as the two women. And three, when Sadie peeks into the tins Martha buries, she sees biblical scenes (which play out in claymation): Jesus carrying on a casual conversation with the two crucified thieves, Moses parting the Red Sea, that sort of thing. Sometimes Sadie sees herself inside these little clay parables. These hallucinations are obviously the weirdest feature of a movie that otherwise merely leans to the absurd side of quirky, but it sets up a final scene that, for what it’s worth, indeed goes all the way into the surreal.

With its squared-off mise en scene, bright colors, deadpan line deliveries, twee musical selections, and eccentric characters, comparisons to are inevitable. And although that’s a great touchstone to determine if this might be your bag, Anderson rarely gets anywhere near this weird. Readers of this site might instead find connections to a similar mismatched-oddball desert buddy comedy, Rubin & Ed (although The Planters never gets quite that wild or aggressive). At any rate, it’s unfair to write this original comedy off as simply ersatz Wes. It’s its own weirdo thing.

The Planters has a terrific DIY backstory. It was created almost entirely by the two lead actresses/co-directors, from scriptwriting to costumes, sets, lighting, props, and sound, with no other crew. Begun in 2016, it took half a year to shoot, and spent a couple more years in post-production (Sam Barnett’s claymation creations took a while), finally arriving at film festivals in late 2019, and getting a very limited theatrical release in December 2020. The best part about it all is that, watching the film, you have no idea that the actresses are alone on set; everything seems to flow naturally from deliberate stylistic choices rather than result from filmmakers scrimping to cram their vision within their limitations.

The Planters is currently free on Amazon Prime for subscribers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Odd. Quirky. Deliberately stilted at times. Colourfully shot with interesting camera angles. Filled with eccentric characters.”–Carey, OrcaSound (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ABOUT ENDLESSNESS (2019)

Om det oändliga

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Martin Serner, Bengt Bergius

PLOT: Wan, deadpan vignettes, including stories of a priest who has lost his faith and a couple who are inexplicably flying over a burnt-out city.

Still from About Endlessness (2019)

COMMENTS: If you’ve seen a Roy Andersson film before, you know exactly what to expect from About Endlessness. If you haven’t seen one before, it’s as easy to describe the style as it is difficult to capture the poetic impact. Andersson movies are a series of short vignettes (some under a minute), mostly grim and bleak in tone, staged on immaculately detailed sets composed of earth tones and enacted by pale actors with mostly deadpan deliveries. Endlessness is not the work I would advise Andersson neophytes to start with (begin at Songs from the Second Floor and work your way forward). This project feels less like a climax to the now-78-year-old Andersson’s brilliant career, and more like an unexpected encore, a gift to hardcore fans who are not quite ready to go home just yet.

Taken together, the patchy events of an Andersson movie suggest a tapestry of human life. Here, most of the segments are introduced by a detached female voice, whose descriptions set the stage for each bit: “I saw a young man who had not yet found love,” “I saw a couple, two lovers, floating over a city,” “I saw a woman who loved champagne.” Endlessness differs from previous entries in Andersson’s canon in that there is less obvious surrealism and absurdity, and also less obvious humor. On the other hand, while he remains a Swede who makes look jovial by comparison, there is more hope here than in the past. A scene at the railway station does not end in the disaster we predict; a fight seems to be resolved, if not happily, at least with closure; and a moment where three young women break into spontaneous dancing is the most life-affirming moment the aueteur has ever chronicled. Even so, the ratio of joy to quiet despair here is unfavorable to humanity; but at least, on occasion, he admits rays of sunlight to break from the overcast skies.

The miniatures are spare, cut to the bone, with no extraneous detail to detract from each parable. Dialogue is rare, action rarer, so we have plenty of opportunity to indulge ourselves with Andersson’s specialty—set design. While the director staged a few outdoor scenes in Endlessness, it’s next to impossible to distinguish those shot in the wild from ones filmed entirely inside his warehouse using trompe l’oeil backdrops. Often the only way to know is by checking whether the clouds move, or whether birds in the sky recede or stay nailed in place.

Recurrent check-ins with a depressed priest who has lost his faith best—and possibly too obviously—express the major theme that runs through Andersson’s work: the disappearance of God from Western culture, and the persistent longing for Him. Meanwhile, the title comes from another vignette, where a young physics student attempts to wring  a spiritual lesson out of the Laws of Thermodynamics, only to be undercut when his girlfriend fails to appreciate the metaphor. At any rate, About Endlessness is an ironic title for a film that runs a brief 75 minutes, and is haunted by premonitions of death. The ending, which will likely serve as the final shot of Andersson’s cinematic career, is a whimper. It suggests that he has run out of gas. I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. I mean that his final statement seems to be that his movie ends as everything will end: broken-down and alone.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘About Endlessness’ is one of the least fanciful of Roy Andersson’s films. There’s less of the deadpan surrealism that tinged his prior, singular movies… The ‘endlessness’ of the film encompasses a lot of absurdity and disappointment, but its notes of grace sound the loudest.”–Glen Kenny, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)