Tag Archives: Swedish

CAPSULE: THE ADVENTURES OF PICASSO [PICASSOS ÄVENTYR] (1978)

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DIRECTED BY: Tage Danielsson

FEATURING: Gösta Ekman, Hans Alfredson, Margaretha Krook, Lena Olin, Bernard Cribbins, Wilfrid Brambell

PLOT: The life of the legendary Spanish painter, told with a  questionable level of veracity.

Still from The Adventures of Picasso (1978)

COMMENTS: In a few weeks, a motion picture will make its streaming debut purporting to tell the remarkable story of pop music’s crown prince of parody, . Weird promises to cover every step of the master accordionist’s life and, whenever possible, to subvert the proceedings with lies and misdirections. It’s a fitting approach for someone who has built a career out of taking familiar sounds and destroying them from within.

What it won’t be is unprecedented. The grand womb-to-tomb biopic has been assailed before. Its conventions have been savagely parodied. We’ve seen lives thoroughly misappropriated with falsehoods and flights of invention. (And that’s to say nothing of legitimate productions that shred the truth to achieve better storytelling.) It turns out that a leading exemplar of the ridiculous film biography hit screens years earlier, the product of a Swedish comedy duo who wondered what it would be like to make an authoritative biography when you have virtually no knowledge of the subject.

Like a book report by a student who did absolutely none of the reading, this take on the life of Picasso is drenched in flopsweat. Within the first 15 minutes of the movie, the pieces of the Picasso legend are already falling into place: young Pablo has established his bonafides at art school (successfully painting a nude after seeing the model for a split second), relocated to Madrid, adopted his trademark striped shirt and white trousers, and invented cubism. Having burned what few facts they have available, the filmmakers pivot to wildly making stuff up. Did you know that Picasso was gifted with a vial of magical ink by a woman he saved from a pair of foul brigands? Maybe you recall his illustrious contemporaries, who evidently include Ernest Hemingway, Erik Satie, two Toulouse-Lautrecs, Puccini (and his real life Mimi), Vincent van Gogh, and even Rembrandt. And who can forget the real story of how a petty artistic quibble between Churchill and Hitler presaged World War II. (No wonder Picasso would seek refuge in America, despite the notorious Art Prohibition of the Roaring Twenties.) The Adventures of Picasso is the movie equivalent of converting text into Japanese in Google Translate and then back.

One of the film’s most inventive techniques is the choice to dispense with dialogue altogether. Actors speak in grunts and gibberish or spout cursory and irrelevant phrases in pidgin versions of various languages. (A persistent chanteuse sings lyrics that are actually a recipe for a Finnish fish pastry.) Even the headline of the traditional newspaper carrying the word of the outbreak of World War I reads simply “BOOM KRASCH BANG!” Only the narration is necessary to carry the story forward, and you get a different version depending upon your native tongue. (English-speakers like myself are treated to comic actor Bernard Cribbins, in his role as Gertrude Stein.) The filmmakers have thus given themselves an out: don’t understand what’s going on? No worries; you’re not supposed to.

While writers Danielsson and Alfredson will do anything for a joke, they show surprising empathy for the Picasso they’ve created. There’s an extended skit where the onscreen Picasso is forced to do whatever the narrator dictates, and that typifies the notion that Picasso ultimately had no agency, a victim of his own success. His father is a relentless huckster; when his dicey hair tonic instantly produces Picasso’s famous baldness, the old man immediately sells the locks to capitalize on his son’s fame. Throughout the rest of his “career,” dear old dad will be there, making friends with history’s greatest monsters and looking for the quickest way to make a buck. At the end, the great artist is nothing more than an exhibit himself; his home is a theme park and his doves of peace are trinkets to be sold. In this telling, Picasso doesn’t so much die as drop out, leaving our materialistic world behind.

The Adventures of Picasso certainly takes an unusual approach to biography; if you come hoping to learn anything about the creative mind behind “Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon” or “Guernica,” you will surely be disappointed. And even the deeper truth that may be lurking within seems suspect; the real Picasso was far from an innocent and was in full control of his brand. But there’s something almost noble about the notion that if you can’t get it right, then by all means get it completely and utterly wrong. Or, as another great biographical subject once observed, “It doesn’t matter if it’s boiled or fried. Just eat it.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

The Adventures of Picasso‘ is billed as ‘a lunatic comedy,’ and while it does achieve that feeling on a couple of rare occasions, for the most part it’s like a bad dream… The film’s strategy is to make everything as feverishly absurd as it can be…. But too much of it has the ring of desperation. It’s all too frantic for words.” Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Ettin, who called it a “[S]wedish surreal comedy” that ” [I]’m sure you will like.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)        

CAPSULE: KUNG FURY (2015)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: David Sandberg

FEATURING: David Sandberg, Jorma Taccone, Leopold Nilsson

PLOT: After his captain is murdered via telephone, policeman Kung Fury must travel back in time to kill the assassin, Kung Führer (AKA Adolf Hitler).

Still from Kung Fury (2015)

COMMENTS: Kung Fury is one of the most ridiculous things I have seen. It is also one of the funniest. Even more impressively, it is that rarest of silly comedy films: one that has the wherewithal and willpower not to overstay its welcome. Apart from its other (considerable) qualities, I’d tip my had to Sandberg for shutting up shop and spinning the closing credits well before he wore through the already well-worn tropes that are the bread and bullets of the genre. From the opening skateboard car-flip to the smugly defiant Hitler soaring amidst the high-rises of 1985 downtown Miami on his mechanized Nazi eagle, it never felt forced, fatigued, or unfunny.

Even before (or… after?) Hitler’s appearance in downtown Miami, the city’s not a pretty sight. Street toughs hassle cops with impunity, flipping their squad cars like skeet discs for target practice. Arcade machines flash a nasty “Fuck You!” to the unhappy gamers who kick it after their sky unicorn is shot down on-screen. And transformer death machines spring to life, smashing up passing motorists and menacing passing canines. These hassles are all in a day’s work for… Kung Fury: a super cop who does not play by the book. The chip on his shoulder is as real as his sardonic gruffness is fake: years back, he lost his partner and mentor at the hands of a Kung fu master; before young Fury could pull the trigger on the assailant, he was “…hit by lightning and bitten by a cobra.” The rest is history.

And there is quite a lot of history: ancient Vikings astride their dinosaur mounts, the mighty god Thor (who utters his immortal words, “Stop! Hammer Time”), and, of course, the requisite hundreds of Nazi goons ready to fall under the righteous bullet spray sof Hackerman, Triceracop, Barbarianna and Katana. Oh, and a second welcome appearance from Thor and his epic pecs. Added to all this inspired lunacy is Jorma Taccone’s performance as a martial arts fascist; the actor perfectly captures the bizarre speechifying articulations of the erstwhile Führer.

Kung Fury is first and foremost a lampoon of ’80s crime/martial arts television and film. The creative team is spot on with everything—gaudy New Wave score, “futuristic” Tron-style animations, and even a seamlessly included advertisement for a newfangled mobile telephone. It’s as resourceful as it is silly. Leaning heavily on the retrowave vibe, occasional “tracking” issues conveniently crop up to disturb the image just when the most expensive effects sequences might take place. The fight choreography is masterful, too; during the Nazi fight, it switches to a long uninterrupted side-scroller video game ballet. Absurd surrealism pops up as well, as when Fury’s boss is shot through a telephone. (A similar stunt from a classic ’70s film comes to mind.) Sandberg is informed, witty, and has an eye for action timing. Kung Fury is, admittedly, no “Must See”, but I would be hard-pressed to recommend it enough.

At the time of this writing, the producers have made Kung Fury available for free (see below).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an insane and ultra bizarre film…”–Martin Hafer, Influx Magazine

CAPSULE: ABOUT ENDLESSNESS (2019)

Om det oändliga

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Recommended

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)

CAPSULE: BLOOD PARADISE (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Patrick von Barkenberg

FEATURING: Andréa Winter, Rolf Brunnström, Christer Cavallius

PLOT: A bestselling crime author goes to a Swedish farm to try to kick start her creative juices for a new book; naturally, murder ensues.

Still from Blood Paradise (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The scattered reports of “weirdness” lurking in this erotic thriller seem to be greatly exaggerated.

COMMENTS: Blood Paradise may be a horror film about an American woman vacationing in a remote part of Sweden, but Midsommar it ain’t. Robin Roberts (Winter) is a bestselling author of potboilers who’s photogenic enough to sell copies based on her author portrait alone. But her last book, “Return to Blood Paradise,” was savaged by critics as “vile” and “abusive.” The poor notices don’t seem to bother her too much; she spends her days drinking wine and smoking cigars poolside in-between trips to the boudoir for light bondage games and toe-sucking with her beefcake cabana boy (played by director von Barkenberg). But her agent nags her into taking a retreat to a remote Swedish airbnb on a farm with no wifi to remove distractions and churn her creative juices, and that’s where the trouble begins.

A jumpy fanboy Uber driver takes her to the farm, run by a crusty old Swede and his silent sister, with a creepy shirtless farmhand also hanging around. Soon enough, everyone is peeping on everyone else—lots of hidden male eyes spy on Robin when she skinny dips, but she also watches the farmer while he stealthily checks a locked shed and catches glimpses of a mysterious character with long stringy hair. The script tries to build suspense out of these few scraps, introducing more characters/suspects like the driver’s jealous wife, and for a while Blood Paradise has the feel of a low-key giallo. The mystery is revealed early in the third act, however, and the movie turns into a gruesome game of cat and mouse between victim and killer, with farm implements used to sever body parts.

Blood Paradise plays, more than anything, like a calling card for lead Andréa Winter, who is only competent as an actress but who has movie star looks and a fiery sex appeal stoked by her eagerness to frequently disrobe. In an earlier age, I could see her becoming an exploitation or softcore star or a major scream queen. There may be a place for her in modern low budget films; she can bring an aura of class to trash, if that’s what a project needs. Blood Paradise is almost entirely a joint venture between Winter and von Barkenberg, who appear to be an offscreen couple as well. He directed, she produced and composed the score, they co-wrote the script and both act in it, and they each appear in just about every credit, from editing to camerawork.

The Artsploitation Blu-ray has four deleted scenes. Despite a running time of just over 80 minutes, all of these were wisely cut, with the possible exception of “Blood Sex Dream,” which I think they chickened out on. There are also two von Barkenberg-directed music videos.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…there is no lack of bizarreness in Blood Paradise… Patrick von Barkenberg’s debut film is worthwhile, even if its for the pure “WTF” factor. Are you looking for a hilariously erotic thriller comedy? Have you never heard of all those things together? Sit down and let the weirdness of Blood Paradise wash over you.”–EJ Moreno, Flickering Myth

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: KOKO-DI, KOKO-DA (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Johannes Nyholm

FEATURING: Leif Edlund, Ylva Gallon, Peter Belli, Brandy Litmanen, Morad Khatchadorian

PLOT: Three years after the death of their daughter, Tobias and Elin go on a joyless camping holiday; a trio of otherworldly psychopaths interrupts their first night—again and again.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Heart-rending shadow-style animation coexists with some of the cruelest nightmare denizens to be found in a cryptic forest milieu. There’s also the lurking white cat guiding the way toward salvation.

COMMENTS: Last night I did something I had never done before: I attended the second screening of Johannes Nyholm’s Koko-di Koko-da. Frankly, I had to. After the first screening, during which at least four people walked out, there was a deafening silence as the credits began rolling. A few rows ahead of me, I spied a young woman raising her hands to applaud, only then noticing that everyone else—at least everyone who had remained—was seated in a rapt silence. Upon exiting the theater, the discussions between me and my reviewer friends immediately began. Two didn’t care for it, two had fallen under its spell, and a fifth could not yet express her opinion. It was, for sure, the most divisive film I’ve encountered this festival.

We meet an unsettling trio of travelers in the woods. A sinister dandy of a man (Peter Belli) sings softly while leading a strange young woman with a leashed dog and a giant of a fellow carrying a dead white dog. Then, the one happy part of the film: Tobias (Leif Edlund) and Elyn (Ylva Gallon) are out celebrating their daughter’s birthday—done up in bunny makeup for dinner.  But Elyn gets food poisoning from some mussels. They camp out at the hospital, and when the parents arise the next morning to sing birthday greetings to their daughter, they find that she died in the night. “Three Years Later” we find the couple again, sniping at each other on their way to a camping holiday. They spend a restless night, and the next morning are set upon by the strange gang from the opening sequence. Again, and again.

I have seen time loops a-plenty, but the cruel, repeated turns of events make Koko-di Koko-da stand out from among its Groundhogian peers. The subtle shifts in climax from doomed encounter to doomed encounter exhibit a psychological nastiness that suggests the director aims to be as unkind to his audience as he is to his characters. But there is a beauty in his movie that rests surprisingly well alongside the surrounding trauma. The two animated shadow-sequences involving two bunnies losing their child, then destroying a (pointedly symbolic) rooster, have an aura of magic tinged with sadness. These accentuate the barbarity found in the encounters with the trio of eerie horrors.

Put simply, I loved this movie, and I knew this immediately upon finishing it for the first time. Generally I can talk about the intellectual reasons I really like something, but here I found myself affected more on a visceral level. I spoke with two of the fellows who walked out, and I couldn’t blame them; the wringer this movie puts the audience through is very trying. But, for those of you who click with this bad dream, there is the reward of intoxicating relief and exhilaration. And like Koko-di Koko-da‘s mystical story, its haunting tune will cling to your memory.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…von Trier’s Antichrist meeting Groundhog Day in laconic and absurdist Scandi poetics.”–Martin Kudlak, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

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)