Tag Archives: Romance

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 CAPSULE: TEZUKA’S BARBARA (2019)

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

DIRECTED BY: Macoto Tezuka

FEATURING: Gorô Inagaki, Fumi Nikaidô

PLOT: Yosuke Mikura, a popular writer facing a creative lull, meets Barbara and develops an obsession with her.

COMMENTS: Damn it, Barbara, you were so very close. Your devil-may-care manic-pixie-dream-girl self was crafted by one of Japan’s most renowned manga artists. You were brought to life in a ragged city milieu, spouting poetry. You toyed so mischievously with the mind of a famous young writer. Your mother constantly wore a helmet-hat made out of cherry cordials. You knocked back 50-year-old single malt Scotch like the pro I always wanted to be. And you just up and dropped the frickin’ ball—right on my eyeball.

It is only because I want to give Osamu Tezuka a fair shake in the future that I won’t hold Tezuka’s Barbara against him. His work might someday actually achieve the weirdness I was looking for, instead of just shamelessly flirting with it. Yosuke is a dull cipher of a protagonist, but that’s fine; all the better to provide the viewer a lens through which to witness the following: frantic lovemaking to a living mannequin cut short by a deft, head-removing smack from a liquor bottle; unsettling voodoo-doll machinations targeted against Barbara’s romantic rival; sociopolitical commentary in the form of Yosuke’s scheming fiancée’s scheming-er father; an all-nude “old religion,” hyper-ritualized with body-oiling wedding ceremony; and promises of necrophilia followed by a cannibalistic snack. But everything collapses into gauzy, melodramatic mush.

If you hear bitterness in my tone, I can assure you it’s there. I had the Apocrypha Candidate review all lined up in my head as I watched Barbara. I was going to compare it to Naked Lunch, due to the films’ shared urban filth and dissonant jazz score. I was going to quip that “Barbara is exactly the girl that Céline and Julie would have met and eaten strange candies with during their Junior year abroad.” Now, I won’t be able to revel in the clever observations about how Barbara captured low-literary romance with high production values.

Instead, I found myself on tenterhooks waiting for the movie’s half-dozen-plus weird ingredients to turn the corner; “weirdus interruptus” doesn’t even begin to describe the disappointment. This is a review written out of spite, and I wouldn’t blame management for not posting it. However, as Yosuke needed to get Barbara out of his system, I desperately needed to get Barbara out of mine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… an exceedingly bizarre love story that is too distanced to be moving, but still has its visual and other pleasures..” -Deborah Young, The Hollywood Reporter (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE MAD FOX (1962)

Koiya koi nasuna koi; AKA Love, Thy Name Be Sorrow

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Tomu Uchida

FEATURING: Michiko Saga, Hashizô Ôkawa

PLOT: An apprentice astrologer, betrayed and driven mad, flees to the countryside where he meets both the twin sister of his lost beloved and fox spirits.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: The Mad Fox opens as a medieval Japanese epic with a  folkloric spin and then suddenly goes mad, turning into kabuki theater and ending on a flying flame.

COMMENTS: The Mad Fox begins on a grandiose note when a “white rainbow” portentously appears in the sky. The Emperor summons the court astrologer, who predicts doom for the kingdom. Before the sage can divulge a remedy suggested by the astrological scroll that holds the answers to future, he is slain by bandits. Only his chosen successor can read the scroll, but the astrologer died without officially choosing between his two disciples. Much scheming and intrigue follows, and the first act ends with Yasuna, the good and faithful disciple, fleeing to the countryside after the death of Sakaki, his beloved and the astrologer’s adopted daughter.

This first section of the film is a sumptuous Technicolor spectacle that plays out on lavish courtyard sets with characters kneeling about in embroidered silk robes, a mise-en-scene that wouldn’t be out of place period piece. Things shift precipitously towards the abstract once Yasuna’s insanity hits, however. The exiled apprentice finds himself in a sea of glowing sunflowers while butterflies on visible strings flit by and a traditional Japanese singer warbles a warning to “never fall in love.” After this Expressionist interlude, act two begins when he stumbles upon Sakaki’s twin sister and, in his madness, believes her to be his lost love. Things get further complicated when the noble Yasuna rescues a wounded fox, transformed into human shape. The fox spirit’s granddaughter falls in love with him and when Yasuna is later wounded, she assumes the likeness of Sakaki and appears to him and licks his wounds clean. It’s a shade of Vertigo, but with the madman desperately falling for two separate specters of his lost love. As Yasuna and the fox build an illusory family, the final act leaves realism even farther behind, turning into a kabuki performance played out on an obvious stage set.

For some reason, synopses and reviews often stress that the movie is “hard to follow.” Although a few details of Tokugawa era society might be unfamiliar to Western audiences, this concern is greatly overblown; I had no more trouble following this than I would a Shakespeare play. The more common complaint among the movie’s rare detractors is that the stylistic transitions Uchida employs are jarring, which I consider to be an asset rather than a liability. The second half of the film, when we follow Yasuna into his delusions, are consistently more engaging and moving than the realist set up–at least, for those of us who value deep imagination over shallow authenticity.

Though respected in his native Japan, Tomu Uchida never broke through to international audiences, for reasons that probably have more to do with bad luck than anything else. The Mad Fox was seldom exhibited outside Japan. Arrow Academy rediscovered and restored this minor classic in 2020 and released it on Blu-ray, where it can now be experienced by the adventurous cinephile with moderately deep pockets.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… there reaches a point at which the movie just goes off the rails in terms of strangeness; Uchida throws anything even resembling logic out the window and begins offering up increasingly oddball elements – including musical numbers and animated sequences – before the entire thing transforms into a filmed play (literally!) that even Max Fischer would find overwrought.”–David Nusair, Reel Film Reviews

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: I LOST MY BODY (2019)

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Recommended

AKA J’ai perdu mon corps

DIRECTED BY: Jérémy Clapin

FEATURING: Voices of Hakim Faris, Victoire Du Bois

PLOT: A right hand, severed from its host body, goes on a harrowing journey in hopes of a reunion.

Still from I Lost My Body (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: If the logline, “It’s like The Incredible Journey, but it’s a hand” doesn’t immediately raise an eyebrow, then you are impervious to surprise. But while an adventure tale of a persistent hand would be intriguing enough, the determination to tell the tale with such bittersweet affection and lyricism is a bold and ultimately rewarding choice.

COMMENTS: The five-fingered human hand is probably among the most difficult things to draw. There are many reasons that most cartoon movies opt for a four-fingered variety, including time, expense, and appearance. So an animated feature in which the leading character is a disembodied, fully humanoid five-fingered hand would seem to reach peak hubris. Yet here we are with the earnestly told, irony-free tale of a hand that is violently amputated, and struggles mightily to be reunited with its body. It’s an idea so crazy, and an undertaking so destined to end disastrously, that it just has to work.

Director Clapin does himself no favors by balancing multiple narratives in time. We have to keep up with the present-day Naoufel, an orphaned immigrant who happens to be missing a hand; his backstory as a boy aspiring to be both a concert pianist and an astronaut (complete with lingering closeups of an extremity that is destined to go AWOL); the story our protagonist as an aimless young man hoping to win the affection of a pretty young woman through techniques straight out of a wacky Hollywood rom-com; and, of course, the adventures of a hand loose in the city.

The hand is a riveting character: navigating the Parisian streets like a wily insect, triumphing in battles with the city’s wildlife, and generally overcoming very long odds. It’s worth noting that the title clearly identifies the hand as the star of the show, so when we see flashbacks to Naoufel’s youth, it’s tempting to see the loving closeups as ironic, dryly foreshadowing, manufacturing suspense for the violent event that is sure to come. And it does work that way, sure. But the real point is that this is the hand’s story. Of course, we’re constantly focused on the hand; it’s the hero of its own tale.

It is sometimes said that it is harder for animated movies to seem weird because they are already a step removed from reality. But Clapin utilizes a surprising array of techniques to keep us off balance, and only some of them have anything to do with animation. Some of them are actually anti-animation, like the long, static, dialogue-focused meet-cute that takes place in an apartment building lobby as Naoufel chats with the future object of his affection entirely over an intercom. This is animated! And yet, the details are so lovingly captured—the boy’s hangdog embarrassment, his resigned eating of a piece of mushed-up pizza—that the format becomes completely irrelevant.

I Lost My Body challenges our willingness to take it seriously, as more than some cartoon Thing loose on the streets of Paris. Perhaps that’s what makes a fairly straightforward quest feel so odd. Indeed, sometimes weird is spectacular, with viewers wondering in awe about the kind of mind that could have dreamed up something so fantastical/disturbing. But sometimes weird is a subtle turn of the prism that casts a familiar tale in an entirely new light. I Lost My Body is just such a movie. Instead of asking “What happened to that boy who lost his hand?’ it has the courage to ask, “What happened to that hand?” The answer turns out to be even more affecting.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In its finished form, director Jérémy Clapin’s peculiar undertaking (adapted from the novel “Happy Hand,” by Guillaume Laurant) is even stranger than it sounded to me half a decade earlier, and yet, there’s no question he’s pulled it off. In fact, I’d hazard to say it’s one of the most original and creative animated features I’ve ever seen: macabre, of course — how could it be otherwise, given the premise? — but remarkably captivating and unexpectedly poetic in the process.” – Peter DeBruge, Variety

(Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (2018)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jue Huang, Wei Tang

PLOT: A man searches for a woman from his past, who may be nothing but a dream.

Still from Long Day's Journey into Night (2018)

COMMENTS: Bi Gan creates shots of intricate logic inside narratives of unfathomable illogic. Technically speaking, Long Day’s Journey into Night (which has nothing to do with Eugene O’Neill’s play) is another feat of long-take virtuosity; think of films like Russian Ark or Birdman (which it approaches, but does not exceed). Scored to Chinese blues and shot on slick neon streets, the film serves up its slow, dreamy story with an intoxicating noirish melancholy.

The first half of Long Journey jumps back and forth in time, and possibly between reality and fantasy. Bi deliberately withholds narrative information: for example, the protagonist, Luo Hongwu, begins describing his search for one “Zuo Hongyuan” before telling us who he is or why he wants to find him. Repeated motifs—karaoke singing, a disreputable old friend named Wildcat, pomelo fruit, a green book, a spinning house—float around, hints of plot that tantalize more than they explain. The result is like the fractured storytelling of Mulholland Drive, but more subdued and dramatic, and with the key to untangling the story (if there is one) buried even deeper inside the labyrinthine narrative. It’s an exercise in how close you can toe the line of incoherence and still have a structure that functions in the same way as a plot.

The second half begins when Luo visits a movie theater to pass time. The line between the film’s two chapters clearly marked when he puts his 3-D glasses on, and the film pops out into its extra dimension. What follows is the most explicitly surreal parts of the film; Luo has drifted off, and meets a boy who may be his never-born son and a woman who just may be the one he has been seeking. The camerawork will astound you.

Long Day’s Journey into Night is the ultra-rare art-house film released to theaters in 3-D (although only the second half is in that format). At home, I watched it in regular old 2-D (although it is available on a 3-D Blu-ray for those few with enhanced players). I doubt I missed out on much. It feels like a little bit of a gimmick; the main justifications are to create a clear dividing point between the movie’s hemispheres, and to make you feel like you are going on a journey with the protagonist. In China, Journey was marketed as a big-deal blockbuster romance and released to theaters on New Year’s Day, China’s preeminent holiday. This counts as a master prank in my book.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The only thing more surreal than the experience of going to see Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is perhaps the movie itself.”–Alex Lei, Film Inquiry (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)

366’S CUDDLES AND KISSES: VALENTINE’S DAY PIC PICKS

Giles Edwards, Pete Trbovich, and El Rob Hubbard suggest fifteen films to share with your strangest sweetie on Valentines’ Day.

Giles:

Being a Curated Valentine’s Day Film List

Poet Blood’s Red, Velvet is Blue —
Your Valentine’s with 366 has come true!

‘s a hottie, none can resist her,
Bar when pining for sister.
For romantic movies, we’ll start our curricula
With the tear-jerking tale of the emperor Caligula.

The French, as they say, have a “je ne sais quoi”;
(Et je pense que je sais vous êtes assez comme moi:)
You know nothing tops love betwixt Man and a Mouse
Making Sitcom the film to watch with your spouse.

Then there’s the Manhattan girl who just wanted love,
And her pleas weren’t ignored by the powers above.
With each death of lovers in throes of their passion
Liquid Sky has romance on peaks of punk fashion.

With both dollops of love and betrayal in parts
Julia uses all of her feminine arts
To try to make David, now unhinged, to behave,
And to dig herself out of her own Shallow Grave.

But for simplicity in love’s questing and fun
This title’s the first, though writ as the last one.
Bringing smiles for show of most wholesome desire,
‘Tis Rubber, the rom-com of which you won’t tire.

Worry not for the titles you may think I’ve missed,
For next comes the Trbovich Valentine’s list.

Pete:

Now you see, man is an animal futilely trying to be a god.

We aspire to these great heights, to rule the planet as the benevolent apex predator, to split the atom and warp space-time, to create a utopia of crystal spires and togas. There’s just one problem holding us back: we’re still animals.

Deep in our brains, there is an electrochemical machine of neuropeptides, hormones, and neurotransmitters ticking away, and whether we like to admit it or not, these little nut-sized chunks of brainmeat with names like “hippocampus” and “amygdala” are our true gods. If you piss them off and go against your natural programming, no happy-joy squirt of dopamine for you!

Every one of us is here today because all of our ancestors got laid, all 3 million years of them. The sticky thing about natural selection is, it isn’t “survival of the fittest,” it’s just “survival of the most efficient way to get laid.” Once you’ve reproduced, that’s all she wrote, nature is done with you. You’ve passed on your genes now, so you can hang around long enough to raise the offspring and then go die alone on an iceberg for all your genes care.

The drive to mate is a powerful force of dominating neurotransmitters, often working against your better judgment, or you wouldn’t be Continue reading 366’S CUDDLES AND KISSES: VALENTINE’S DAY PIC PICKS

CAPSULE: SCARLET DIVA (2000)

DIRECTED BY: Asia Argento

FEATURING: Asia Argento, Jean Shepherd, Joe Coleman

PLOT: A hot young Italian actress has dirty sex, encounters Hollywood scumbags, and does too much Special K while looking for true love.

Still from Scarlet Diva (2000)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This semi-hallucinatory semi-autobiography, the directorial debut of ‘s actress daughter, is merely a curiosity, though frequently an outlandish and entertaining one. It’s made with all the taste and subtlety you would expect from a woman with an angel tattooed over her crotch.

COMMENTS: Scarlet Diva is an experimental art movie that wouldn’t have been out of place on Cinemax After Dark. Asia Argento, the writer-director, asks Asia Argento, the actress, to do full frontal nudity, multiple sex scenes, a lesbian scene, and a couple of attempted-rape scenes. To freak out in front of a mirror while tripping on ketamine. To smoke, drink, and get into a mosh pit while pregnant. To pathetically pine for a pretty boy rock singer who doesn’t have time for her. To imagine herself as the Virgin Mary. Asia Argento, trooper that she is, eagerly complies with all these requests.

Scarlet Diva is timely because, among its many unsavory anecdotes, it includes a fictionalized version of the actress’ sexual abuse at the hands of now disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein. (In this version, she gets away, and he chases her down a hotel corridor as the camera focuses on his hairy ass). Yet that episode is only one of the many chaotic tales in this rambling confessional that plays like a trashy tell-all bestseller brought to life by an ambitious film student who hadn’t quite decided whether she wants to direct for the arthouse or for the late night cable market. So you get a hog-tied nude roommate, childhood flashbacks, a puking scene, dream sequences, a drug trip complete with an out-of-body experience, a religious bestiality icon, aerobics in leopard-skin panties, screaming into the void, an encounter with a horny heroin-addicted genius, Asia nude shaving her underarms while Nina Simone sings “Wild is the Wind,” and so on. And exchanges like, “That’s the first time I’ve ever made love.” “Don’t tell me you’re a virgin?” “No, I’m a whore.”

It’s pretentious, sure, but in the most enjoyable way: honest, over-the-top, passionately personal, and never boring. Scarlet Diva is not, by most definitions, great filmmaking. And yet, there’s an excellent chance you’ll find yourself entertained by it, in a guilty pleasure way.  And you’ll also feel legitimate pity and affection for Argento, despite the occasional clumsiness with which she makes the case for her own debasement. It’s better than a so-bad-it’s-weird movie, but it’s in the same general region, in the sense that it’s as often interesting for things it does wrong as for things it does right.

Film Movement Classics treats Diva like a Criterion-worthy masterpiece. There are tons of supplements, including an 8-minute “making of” featurette; an archival Asia Argento interview;  multiple versions of the trailer, including an 8-minute promo; and an odd piece called “Eye of the Cyclops” where Joe Coleman talks about his role in the film while showing us his titular conceptual art piece. It’s capped off by a very personal, even uncomfortable commentary track where Argento almost breaks into tears at times, curses Harvey Weinstein, and refuses to discuss certain painful scenes in detail.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It is, by conventional standards, a fairly terrible movie — crudely shot on digital video, indifferently acted (in three languages) and chaotically written (by Ms. Argento) — but it is also weirdly fascinating, a ready-made Eurotrash cult object.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (U.S. debut)