Tag Archives: Thriller

CAPSULE: SUPER ME (2019)

Qi Huan Zhi Lv

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DIRECTED BY: Zhang Chong

FEATURING: Talu Wang, Bingkun Cao, Jia Song, Shih-Chieh King

PLOT: Sang Yu, a screenwriter at the end of his tether, finds he can swipe high-value artifacts from his nightmares to sell in the real world.

COMMENTS: Oh, unreliable narrator, how you revel in tales of dreams and dreams within them. Oh, Chinese cinema, how quickly you catch up to the West. Oh, Mark 8:36, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” And, oh, there are yet more questions to pose concerning Super Me, but for the time being, I will table the niggling unanswerables. The most surprising thing about Zhang Chong’s dream-thriller (rated TV-14 for, among other reasons, “fear”) is that its double twist undercut my predictions. The least surprising thing about it was that once our hero shaved his dorky facial hair, he became rather handsome and self-assured.

Sang hasn’t slept in half a year, or so he tells us. This obviously cannot be true. But as we suspended our disbelief for Fight Club, so let us extend that courtesy to Super Me. Sang is harried by San, to whom he owes a screenplay. This movie is about a screenwriter, one who pines for humble café owner (and possibly ex-nightclub singer; the flashback is thorough but not entirely clear), Hua’er. Sang runs out of cash, has his laptop stolen, is kicked out of his apartment, and is about to jump from a roof when he’s talked down by the kindly pancake vendor on the sidewalk below. This mystical philosopher advises the worn-out young man that in life, people always talk about death—to remind themselves they are still alive. During his nightly nightmares (in which he’s being murdered by some otherworldly blue goon), Sang should just declare, “I’m dreaming” to break the spell. Taking this sage advice, the next thing we know, he awakes with the goon’s impossibly valuable sword in hand. Pawn shop, money bags, big living, and lucid dreaming ensue.

Chong’s film is peopled with run-of-the-mill characters and the third act’s tone shift doesn’t quite gel—its sudden menace kneecaps the arc of wish fulfillment/cutesy romance an hour into the proceedings. I liked the menace; it was well executed, with unlikely but believable gangsters. Having derailed the fun and breezy tone that had dominated (post-suicide attempt, of course), Chong undercut what could have made his story even rarer: the feel-good thriller. But the lead is so goofily charismatic that I couldn’t help but root for him as he traveled along his path to wisdom at a pleasant clip.

I approach modern Chinese cinema with something of a jaundiced eye, always wondering where the propaganda will seep into the picture. But Super Me was no more laden with moralizing than standard Hollywood fare. This was aided by its narrative structure. While not on the same satirical-poetical level as Buñuel, Chong nicely bleeds reality and dream together. (His hand is heavier than the late Spanish master, but so is everyone else’s.) And moreso than Chris “I’mma Dreamer” Nolan, Chong has a playfulness and lack of pretention that makes Super Me a pleasant diversion from waking life.

Super Me is streaming exclusively on Netflix for the time being.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…startling visuals, an immersive video game atmosphere, and a steady wash-rinse-repeat plot that’s equal parts simplicity and obscurity make this a potential cult film…  Just when you think you understand the rules of this bizarre world, a plot twist contradicts the conclusion.”–Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SLEEPLESS BEAUTY (2020)

Ya ne splyu

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DIRECTED BY: Pavel Khvaleev

FEATURING: Polina Davydova

PLOT: Two orderly researchers trap unsuspecting Russian, enacting potent operational reprogramming, neurologically.

Still from Sleepless Beauty (2020)

COMMENTS: In case my subliminal message didn’t sink in, here’s an illustrative rhyme to clarify:

T” is for “trying“, the squeamish beware;
O” is for “overt“, showing all it dares.
R” is for “retching“, a result that’s sought;
T” is for “tension“, one’s throat in a knot.
U” is for “ugly“, most violent of crimes,
R” is for “razor“, it’s used oftentimes.
E” is for “endless“, may blood never cease,
P” is for “prodding“, in places liked least.
O” is for “offal“, of the human kind,
R” is for “rotting“, of body and mind.
N” is for “nasty“, how it has to be–
It spells “Torture Porn”, unsettling with glee.

Like most porn, “torture porn” is an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing. In Pavel Khvaleev’s latest film, Sleepless Beauty, I saw plenty of it. Khvaleev takes cues from the Saw franchise (woman locked in room facing various “challenges”), the Dark Web franchise (a chatroom transcript springs up at intervals throughout), and the Hieronymous Bosch franchise—illustrated by an extended animation sequence that can only be described as “Boschian”. (And yes, technically there isn’t a film franchise under that Dutchman’s auspices, but hope springs eternal.)

For the most part, Sleepless Beauty is spot-on. The introduction gives the viewer enough grounding to follow what’s happening to “Mila” (a very much put-upon Polina Davydova), even if we don’t necessarily know what all this sturm und drang is storming and driving at. Joining us in our confusion is a peanut gallery of chatroom personalities who have opted to watch the web broadcast of the ordeal (on some server even TOR-ier than TOR) in pursuit of lurid thrills. Two chat-room “Admin” voices have a conversation during the feed that increasingly hints at what is actually going on.

To the extent torture porn can work, Sleepless Beauty works well. The chatroom vignettes provide some great black comedy moments. And the seemingly-unrelated framing story about a Russian ambassador nicely wraps everything together. However, whoever cast the English-dub actors should be fired from show business. This is a dark Russian movie, and one should be able to watch it and listen and hear the kind of casual fatalism that can only come from Russian actors whose Russian can be heard. The low-rent Californian-English “coming” from Mila’s somber-looking parents effectively ruins the movie every time they appear—and the less said about the C-grade vocalizations for the world-weary Russian detective, the better. I have a hunch I could give this movie “Recommended” status if I had been able to view the original language cut.

But I didn’t. If you find yourself curious at this point, seek out the subtitled version and I can all but guarantee that, if you are a fan of this genre, you will enjoy yourself tremendously, as horrible things are enacted on the protagonist-cum-test subject.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the online viewers constantly asking for ‘more action’… brings a strange edge, together with the bizarre virtual reality clips, which are stop-motion animations looking like a mix of Terry Gilliam, the Quay Brothers, Jan Svankmajer, with some Giger and general biology thrown in for good measure. A good thing that is too, as the film needs that edge, because… there is not that much to look at beside a woman being tortured.” -Ard Vijn, Screen Anarchy (contemporaneous)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: SLEEP (2020)

Schlaf

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

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Michael Venus

FEATURING: Gro Swantje Kohlhof, August Schmölzer, Sandra Hüller, Marion Kracht

PLOT: Mona visits the hotel where her mother, a long-time sufferer of crippling nightmares, experienced a stupor-inducing breakdown, discovering that the known elements of its dark history pale in comparison to the full roster of its buried atrocities.

COMMENTS: If this is Germany’s answer to the often nonsensical “dream horror/thriller,” then sign me up for some naturalization papers. Before you ask, no, this is not a ground-breaking movie and no, this is not a movie that entirely makes sense. The latter of those aspects is partially what makes it merit 366’s attention, but what makes this such a delicious cake of silly, serious, piggy, Nazi, death-metal, hotelier smiley-horror are… well, those elements that I just listed to describe it. Like the nightmare boar that lurks around its periphery, the unexpected comes in from seemingly out of nowhere often enough to make Sleep highly enjoyable.

The nightmare plot is anchored by two heroines: Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) and her mother Marlene (Sandra Hüller). Marlene suffers from horrible nightmares and violent night terrors. She pulls a fast one on her daughter claiming she’ll be “overnighting in Istanbul” (Marlene is a stewardess), but actually heads to the Stainbach hotel she has begun to clearly see in her dreams. Three men have killed themselves in this dream hotel, and a fourth much more dangerous man threatens her subconscious. Shortly after checking into the generically named “Sonnenhügel” (“sun hill”) hotel (into the symbolism-heavy room number “187”), she suffers a massive attack and ends up in a stupor at a nearby hospital. Daughter Mona’s subsequent visit to Sonnenhügel is where the real story begins…

There are a lot of obvious dreams and false-awakenings, but these are well-executed and forgivable considering the genre. Michael Venus even gives the viewers a primer on the repercussions of dying in dreams—Mona and Franzi (the only maid to be found in this massive hotel complex) have a conversation over coffee bluntly describing said survival chances. But the real menace comes from Franzi’s bosses, the hotel owners. Otto is affable and obliging in such a way that you know something creepy is up, but still want to believe him; his wife Lore has the reserved look of a woman who knows more than she wants to. (This idea is reinforced when we first see them arise from bed together; she lovingly undoes her husband’s wrist and ankle restraints for the day while he talks sweetly about a dream he had that night.)

What slips Sleep into the silly/creepy territory are Otto’s ambitions beyond hotel development. I’ve already hinted at these, so I’ll go no further than to say that there are ultimately some heavy references to Pigsty and a massacre that could have been lifted straight from the Inglorious Basterds playbook. Whoever else Michael Venus is, he’s someone who feels that too much of a good thing is a better thing: dreams, drugged schnapps, creepy pig-masked men in tuxedos, incubi, and revenge, revenge, revenge. That, it appears, is a dish best served with strobe lights flashing, meat tenderizer in hand, and a surprise knife to the neck.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Occasional non-sequiturs and bursts of surreal speech invite us to wonder if we’re dreaming… There’s a lot to digest here and at times it feels as if Venus has added more ingredients than he really needs… Nevertheless, it’s a stylish attempt to address issues that remain taboo for many Germans. It invites us all to look directly at what lies in the unconscious, to address it there before it takes physical form.” -Jennie Kermode, Eye For Film (contemporaneous)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: MUSING ON MEMORY – THE OAK ROOM (2020) AND KRIYA (2020)

Or, “Dead Dad Double Feature”

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

Happenstance, more than anything else, brought me a double feature that centered on the deaths of fathers. Cody Calahan’s The Oak Room is best described as a “Canadian thriller”: subdued, sparsely-populated, and blanketed in driving snow. Showing up after closing time at his father’s favourite bar, Steve requests his old man’s ashes. Paul, friend of the father, bartender, and all-around bastard, has them—in a tackle box. But he demands that Steve pay up “what he owes” before handing them over.

The Oak Room‘s action takes place in two different, but eerily similar-looking drinking dens. What seems a simple story of a ne’er-do-well son returning after his father’s death becomes a collection of stories: Steve’s story about “the Oak Room”, Paul’s story about Steve’s father’s story about hitch-hiking in his 20s, Tommy Coward’s story about the goings-on in the Oak Room, and, twice, Michael’s story about his father’s pig farm. For those counting at home, that’s five interlocking pieces of one narrative—each unlocking a piece of a puzzle. By the time the unclear ending rolls around, each narrators’ unreliability sloshes into the stew of truth and fiction, and the film’s seemingly scant body count may rise. Or, is Steve—seemingly some kind of idiot drifter—merely harnessing the power of storytelling to trick the bitter bartender?

In Sidharth Srinivasan’s Kriya, a DJ named Neel gets more than he bargained for when he returns to the home of Sitara, a fiercely attractive young woman who catches his eye. Expecting sex, instead he finds he’s been drafted into being a male mourner for her father’s death rites. Sitara’s family is incredibly traditional, and Hindu tradition demands that the father’s son lead the ceremonies. But Neel is not this man’s son—and he realises too late that he’s gotten roped (at times, literally) into an attempt by the family to break a generations’-long curse. Pity poor Neel.

The Oak Room is obviously a thriller, and Kriya is obviously a horror movie, but they stand out in the same manner that they stand together: both meditate on the death of a patriarch, and both explore the vagaries of human memory and tradition. Steve’s father, Gord, told stories; his son does the same. It is an attempt to make sense of things, perhaps improving on the past through retelling (“goosing the truth”, as explained by bartender Paul). Kriya echoes this technique of ritualizing a narrative through repetition, focusing much more blatantly on rites—centuries old, in this case. Kriya‘s first third is almost entirely devoted to the death rites of Sitara’s dying father; it’s final third is almost entirely devoted to the magical rites that relate to the family curse.

The thread tying these films together–films made 7,000 miles apart, about two very different cultures–was a reminder of why I love cinema and how it underscores the universality of humankind’s need to tell stories. It has been no small relief that even though Fantasia’s festival trappings have been canceled this year, the stories continue.

CAPSULE: MY NIGHTS WITH SUSAN, SANDRA, OLGA, & JULIE (1975)

Mijn Nachten met Susan, Olga, Albert, Julie, Piet & Sandra

DIRECTED BY: Pim de la Parra

FEATURING: Willeke van Ammelrooy, Hans van der Gragt, Franulka Heyermans, Marja de Heer, Nelly Frijda, Marieke van Leeuwen, Serge-Henri Valcke

PLOT: Anton is sent by Barbara to pick up her friend Susan, who has exiled herself in the countryside; the errand goes awry when two of Susan’s housemates murder an American passing through their town.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though it is a perk, having professional opportunities to watch classic lite-porn isn’t the main reason I took up writing for this site. Pim de la Parra and producer Wim Verstappen once again limbo below the bar of “weird” to deliver a quirky, flesh-filled … thriller?

COMMENTS: It’s got a title Peter Greenaway would love (particularly the more thorough Dutch version), establishing shots ripped off from Alfred Hitchcock, and more carefree nudity than you could shake a stick at. (Being very careful, under the circumstances, in so doing.) In fact, other than breezing along a tad too quickly, I have no real complaints about this movie. Even the director’s introduction video for the blu-ray was disarming and convivial, “Please don’t forget: it’s a small movie from a small country, and I am also a very small man, as you can see.”

Our story begins with Sandra (Marja de Heer) and Olga (Franulka Heyermans) hucking rocks at some swans, stopping their mindless fun to flag down a car driven by an American. He’s smoking a big-honkin’ cigar, he’s wearing garish sunglasses, he’s blasting some kind of proto-R&B in his drop-top’s cassette deck (this is 1975, remember). Topping it off, he’s drinking “Bourbon, USA” brand whiskey. He’s an American—and he’s doomed1. Sandra lures him into some car sex while Olga looks on jealously. Smash goes the bottle, down goes the Yankee, and the story begins anew, with hunky-hunk Anton (Hans van der Gragt) zipping up to a farmhouse on his motorcycle on a mission to extract erstwhile model Susan (Willeke van Ammelrooy) at the behest of an unseen “Barbara” who wants Susan back in the city. All the non-Barbara ladies live together (not forgetting, of course, Julie—who is either asleep or helpfully wearing a t-shirt with her name written on it). In fact, there are others lurking about the farmhouse not included in the English-language title. More plot than can fit in eighty-five minutes gets sliced down further to allow for some “romance”.

The whole thing was so strangely whimsical and fun, I regret having put off watching it for as long as I did. As the final release of de la Parra’s and Verstappen’s “Scorpio” production label, it’s also a nice capstone for what was probably the end of whimsical soft-core mainstream-ism. AIDS lurked around the corner, and the Cold War was reaching its awkward, saggy middle. Scorpio goes out with a bang, figuratively, but with My Nights with Susan, Sandra, Olga & Julie it also crams in some psychodrama (just a smidge), a latter-day witch, and rounds out its lilting excess with some nice fiery vengeance for the delight of an audience of corpses. This little movie fills a void I didn’t know existed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“For approximately an hour Parra does different things — which should not be spoiled – that essentially provide his film with a Hitchcockian identity but the humor keeps chipping away its edges, which makes all of the key relationships look a bit odd. However, it all begins to make perfect sense when you realize, like I did an hour later, that the real distraction that throws everything out of sync is actually the Hitchcockian material.”–Dr. Svet Atanasov, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: AGAINST THE CLOCK (2019)

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:  Mark Polish, Dianna Agron, Andy Garcia, Justin Bartha

PLOT: Chandler, a medically enhanced superspy on a mission,  falls into a coma and his wife Tess tries to bail him out.

Still from Against the Clock (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is art-house wannabe fodder for the hypothetical and stereotyped millennial audience who eat a bowl of sugar-frosted molly every morning for breakfast. It is strange by the measure of misguided and incompetent work, but true “weird” should be an intentional choice.

COMMENTS: I’ve gotten in trouble on this site for reviews like Breakfast of Champions and The God Inside My Ear, so I’m going to clearly ask up front: take Uncle Pete’s word for it and have faith in me this time. Against the Clock is not, again, not a movie. It is a tragically aborted fetus that came close to showing vital signs, but went wrong. What went wrong was a special effects team, fresh off an online Adobe Premier Pro course, who masturbated furiously all over the film with strobe-light-paced jump-cut CGI scored to literally every noise from a stock sound effect CD, followed by a director who subsequently fed the film stock through a wood-chipper until it was confetti and glued it back together with flypaper strips. With these chaotic monkeys turned loose on the production, the attempted movie has no room left for story, characters, dialogue, or a cubic centimeter of breathable oxygen in which to make clear its artistic statement. Picture Max Headroom on cocaine, turned loose with a camera for 100 minutes in the seedy side of The Matrix.

If you thought Oliver Stone’s style in Natural Born Killers wasn’t hyper enough, if Run, Lola, Run stressed your attention span, or if you felt The Wall just did not indulge itself in enough psychedelic show-offs, then get ready to put on your boogie pants and dance. Not to compare Against the Clock to those greater efforts; those works use trippy imagery and sugar-rush effects as tasteful seasonings on a competent recipe. Against the Clock unscrews the cap and dumps in the whole bottle.

Nevertheless, if you take the movie at its own terms and approach it with the right frame of mind, it does have some kind of artistic vision. But once you’ve become used to an experience that’s like viewing a pinball machine from inside the ball while the bumpers and flippers whack it around—and taken enough Dramamine not to barf—the movie’s novelty wears off. Rather than amping me up, the ADHD editing has the opposite effect: it lulls me into a relaxing daze, like watching a fireplace. This movie would make a pretty screensaver. It even held my cat’s attention for a record ten minutes before he wisely curled up in an adjacent chair for nap time, an option I envied as I contemplated running a Monster energy drink through my Continue reading CAPSULE: AGAINST THE CLOCK (2019)

LES VAMPIRES (1915)

Andre Breton was among the Surrealists who considered Louis Feuillade as one of their own. The silent serial filmmaker probably never heard of the term (he died in 1925, as the movement was in its infancy), and likely would have disavowed it and continued cranking out his serials, oblivious to just how weird they are. Feuillade directed 700 films. Of course, most of these are shorts, and are lost. Although his work ranged from comedies to Bible dramas, Feuillade’s reputation today rests on three pulpy silent serials: Fantomas (1913), Les Vampires (1915), and Judex (1916).

A few years ago, Les Vampires, the most famous of the three, was found (after being considered lost for years), restored and rediscovered. Kino’s Blu-ray edition is exemplary, as usual, and the way to go.

A bit about Feuillade: his parents sent him to seminary in hopes he that he would become a priest. That didn’t happen, but that Catholic experience is credited with his late Gothic style. He showed an early interest in literature and drama, worked in vaudeville, married, struggled before success making films for the Gaumont studios, lived in the suburbs, and was a workaholic. In other words, he was unremarkable—except for his trilogy of serials, which influenced both and . The phenomenal success of Fantomas took both Feuillade and the studio by surprise. It is amusing that while that film is considered his first masterpiece, Feuillade himself wasn’t aware of it, and quickly set to work on the followup Les Vampires for one reason—money.

Still from Les Vampires (1915)When Les Vampires was released on home video, many horror fans were disappointed, thinking it was going to be about bloodsuckers. Rather, it’s a crime melodrama about a crepuscular criminal gang, dubbed “the Vampires,” led by femme fatale Irma Vep (Musidore, the stage name of actress Jeanne Roques, who also starred in Judex). With large black eyes, skin-tight black leotards, and a sinister bewitching charisma, Musidore easily steals the film as a batwoman/catwoman/ succubus. The fact that the protagonists are all dullards makes it  easier for Musidore to stand out. Les Vampires upset the censors at the time, who briefly banned it for glamorizing crime (thankfully, it’s guilty as hell of the charges).

Naturally, Vampires is also paced like the serials that followed it. Although they do not end in cliffhangers per se, each episode is designed to bring the viewer back to the plot. Feuillade’s serials weren’t shown weekly, but were released irregularly (Les Vampires appeared over a six-month period). For all of their primitive flaws, Feuillade’s trilogy of serials are probably the best of that genre cinema has produced. Most people cite The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), with its amiable lead (Tom Tyler) and tongue-in-cheek approach, as the best serial of the genre’s 1940s heyday. It undoubtedly is, but it’s not saying much, and can’t compare to the Feuillade;s work in the 1910s. It’s the archaic, Gothic, otherworldly quality that sets Les Vampires apart from the watered down serial genre as we came to know it. Feuillade is an essential antidote for the weird movie fan who think he/she has seen everything.

Les Vampires is divided into ten episodes, beginning with “The Severed Hand.” Reporter Philippe Guerande (Edouard Mathe) vows to track down the Vampire ring. We never once root for him, or even his comic sidekick reporter Philippe Guerande (Edouard Mathe). Feuillade deftly balances pulpy luridness, surreal slapstick, and gritty realism (the serial was shot in the back alleys of Paris). Although the early episodes are too much Mathe and not enough Musidora, she still has a marvelously compelling balletic sequence in episode two. Les Vampires is undeniably bogged down, with nearly all the co-stars living up to the hyper-styilzed silent film acting cliches, but Musidora is the engaging exception, and her cult status is easily cemented.

It is with Episode 5, “Dead Man’s Escape,” that Les Vampires kicks in and lives up to its reputation as a carnal cinematic comic book. One of the key appeals in the film’s aesthetic is the fact that a considerable amount of it was improvised, which gives it an “anything goes” atmosphere and brings a consistent element of genuine surprise, which no later serial managed.

Like most serials, Les Vampires is primarily a chase spectacle, but the streets of WWI-ravaged France imbue every frame, every action, with a sense of dread. Torture, secret passages, secret identities, hidden tunnels, portable cannons, poison gas, shootouts, theft, invisible ink, on-stage murders, hideouts, rooftop escapes, slyly named antagonists (e.g. “Satanas”), decapitations, hypnosis, rival gangs, bombings, alchemy, and anarchy set the stage for an entire genre; but Les Vampires is far more violent and—with Musidora—more erotic than the male-oriented superhero-styled serials of the talkies. It took a female lead, and a naive surrealist silent filmmaker, to show everyone else how to to do it right. Les Vampires is a tad too long, and shouldn’t be watched in a single setting. Nor, as one of the silent era’s certified masterpieces, should it be missed. You may never want reality from a film again.