Nov 30, 2023

Best Premiere Viewings of November 2023

1. Bitterroot Episode 1: Greed’s Dream (Johnny Clyde, 2023)

Initially conceived as a feature film, ‘Bitterroot’ has been transmuted into an online series, and its first episode is a pure surrealist bliss! A mesmerizing blend of photo-novel, painting, and 2D animation, it utilizes a dazzling barrage of phantasmagorical imagery to reach your subconscious mind. Elevating the viewing experience – akin to a hypnagogic trance – is an ethereal, mystifying score synergized with a cryptic, distorted voice-over. Johnny Clyde (The Forgotten Colours of Dreams) once again proves to be one of the most distinct voices of independent cinema.

2. Les chambres rouges / Red Rooms (Pascal Plante, 2023)

If I were asked to describe ‘Red Rooms’ in a single word, I would probably opt for ‘anti-sensationalist’, which also perfectly suits the author’s measured approach to the razor-sharp dissection of modern society, or rather, its evils, collective and individual alike, as well as to the stark, mystery-imbued study of a character fascinated by a heinous crime. Firmly anchored in the central, utterly magnetic performance from Juliette Gariépy whose micro-acting skills give Mads Mikkelsen a good run for his money, this stellar, thought-provoking, impressively cold, steely unnerving and formally ingenious psycho-drama/thriller needs no Hollywood-style ‘fireworks’ to keep you glued to screen. Right from the get-go set in a featureless, yet instantly captivating courtroom, it snatches your attention by virtue of extraordinary camerawork, especially the expert use of long takes, at once immersive and chillingly uncanny sound design, elaborate music score which elevates the bleakness of the atmosphere, and above all, incredibly pedantic direction marked by eerie, Haneke-like austerity, and to a certain degree, methodical mannerism of late Schrader. Beneath its ‘frigid’ surface of brilliantly played understatements, simmers a well of intense emotions, lending a refined patina to the proceedings...

3. Diabły, diabły / Devils, Devils (Dorota Kędzierzawska, 1991)

Dorota Kędzierzawska gently blurs the boundaries between innocence and eroticism in her feature debut – a highly poeticized coming-of-age drama that explores the budding sexuality of a teenage girl, Mała (lit. little one), against the backdrop of the tension between villagers and Romani nomads – ostracized and demonized by country bumpkins – in 60’s Poland. Eschewing dialogue in favor of stunningly beautiful, psychologically penetrating close-ups, she also paints one of the most romantic portraits of Roma people, immersing herself, the young heroine (Justyna Ciemny, absolutely wonderful in the central role) and the viewer in their songs and dancing. From the largely non-professional cast who give off Pasoliniesque vibes at times, she acquires a great deal of authenticity, as well as a strong sense of freedom, delivering the film of pristine energies and meaningful silences, with every look, smile, touch and step impregnated with keen lyricism.

4. La fiancée du pirate / A Very Curious Girl (Nelly Kaplan, 1969)

Chytilova’s feminist radicalism, Buñuelian gleeful irreverence, Papatakis’s anarchic verve, and Godard’s bold use of primary colors coalesce in one of the most entertaining cine-humiliations of capitalist patriarchy. Nelly Kaplan directs her feature debut with playful audacity and rebellious openness, channeling her confrontational zeal through Bernadette Lafont in the central role. Her vibrantly farcical story of a young woman’s liberation from the confines of provincial hypocrisy sees the weaponization of female sexuality as a form of modern-day witchcraft whose practitioner ‘doesn’t let herself to be burned’, in the words of the director herself. ‘A Very Curious Girl’ makes me very curious about other Kaplan’s films.

5. Scavengers Reign (Joseph Bennett & Charles Huettner, 2023)

Taking cues from Mœbius’s artwork, and Laloux’s cult favorites such as ‘Gandahar’, Miyazaki’s adaptation of ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind’ manga, and Dudok de Wit’s masterpiece ‘The Red Turtle’, as well as from a number of movies involving a spaceship crew lost in an alien environment, Bennett & Huettner deliver one of the most imaginative pieces of science-fiction in recent years! ‘Scavengers Reign’ follows a group of survivors from a space freighter Demeter 227 who find themselves stranded on a gorgeous, yet not quite welcoming planet Vesta, and the utterly impressive world building alone is reason enough to visit this short series. Brimming with outlandish vistas and bizarre creatures that make up the setting’s intricate, not to mention awe-inspiring eco-system, it strikes you hard with its surreal-like qualities that are further enhanced by dream sequences and hallucinations, all presented in charmingly (and refreshingly!) quaint 2D animation accompanied by a mesmerizing score.

6. Žuvies diena (Algimantas Puipa, 1990)

Veronika’s reality resembles a disorienting dream, and her dreams are almost as tangible as off-kilter reality. In-between the two indistinguishable ‘extremes’ lies her writing with ‘imaginary exotic setting’, ‘characters who aren’t real’, and ‘everything messed-up on purpose’, in the words of her editor. ‘Why not talk to a film director?’, he asks, hinting at the meta-quality of the fragmented, freewheeling narrative, and quite probably referencing to Jolita Skablauskaitė’s work which served as the source of inspiration for Liucia Armonaitė and Regina Vosyliutė’s screenplay. Whimsically poetic, decidedly meandering and starkly intuitive in its stream-of-consciousness rapture, ‘The Day of the Fish’ stubbornly refuses to conform, placing the viewer in the heroine’s disjointed point of view, and employing a combined barrage of borderline oneiric imagery, dissonantly eclectic soundtrack, and often allusive dialogue to a hypnotizing effect. 

7. Papa les petits bateaux... / Papa, the Lil’ Boats (Nelly Kaplan, 1971)

Nelly Kaplan and her crew must’ve had a whale of a time on the set, because ‘Papa, the Lil’ Boats’ sizzles with their sparkling energies combined in a most fascinating way! Insanely farcical, cartoonishly silly, and brimming with a cult potential, this comedy sees a rich, not to mention shrewd heiress, Vénus ‘Cookie’ De Palma (outlandishly funny Sheila White!), transforming from a victim into a kicking, screaming, scheming and dancing, or simply put, seductively misbehaving nightmare for an unlikely band of  kidnappers. As they fall one after another in a series of ‘accidents’, unaware that their ‘brilliant’ plan is doomed right from the chloroformless start, Kaplan gleefully mocks greed, stupidity, possessiveness, and a capitalist paternal figure embodied by Sydney ‘son of Charlie’ Chaplin in a superb supporting role. She makes the most of the limited locations, with DoP Ricardo Aronovich (who filmed ‘Jaune le soleil’ by Marguerite Duras in the same year) capturing all the deliciously colorful zaniness with aplomb.

8. La giornata balorda / From a Roman Balcony (Mauro Bolognini, 1960)

Opening with a dizzyingly beautiful long, low-angle take that captures not only the dilapidation and poverty of a slum tenement, but its very soul as well, ‘From a Roman Balcony’ immediately pulls you into a bold deglamorization of Rome, as it follows a sexed-up ne’er-do-well protagonist, Davide Saraceno (Jean Sorel, his talent matched with good looks), in the seemingly futile search for a job. More interested in women than work, with a teenage fiancée (angelic Valeria Ciangottini) and newborn son waiting at home, Davide crosses paths with three gorgeous paramours-to-be, manicurist Marina (Jeanne Valérie), prostitute Sabina (Isabelle Corey) and mysterious, truck-driving Freja (Lea Massari), approaching his goal in most unexpected ways, through the Roman underbelly. Heavily censored at the time, Bolognini’s social drama appears like a bridge between neorealism and modernism, seducing the viewer with Piero Piccioni’s smoky jazz score, and Aldo Scavarda’s brilliant cinematography, all the while thematically anticipating one of its co-writer’s debut – Pasolini’s ‘Accattone’ (1961). 

9. Finský nůž / The Finnish Knife (Zdenek Sirový, 1965)

From Věra Chytilová and František Vláčil to Juraj Herz and Juraj Jakubisko, the Czechoslovak cinema of the 60’s holds a number of must-see titles for any true cinephile. Even the lesser known / overlooked films such as ‘The Finnish Knife’ tend to leave a strong impression. Co-written by director Zdenek Sirový, and Pavel Juráček who would work alongside Chytilová’s on her cult feature ‘Daisies’ in the following year, this psychological drama / road movie belongs to the ‘misguided youth’ drawer in the New Wave archives. A taut examination of guilt, it revolves around two adolescents, Tonda (Karel Meister) and Honza (Jaromír Hanzlík), who flee from justice believing the latter is responsible for murdering a man with the titular knife. On the way to Poland, the boys’ friendship is put to a severe test, because apart from the (unproven) crime, they don’t share much in common, with their disparate inner states and insecurities externalized through the beautiful chiaroscuro cinematography of Jan Čuřík (The White Dove, Joseph Killian, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders), editor Jan Chaloupek’s insightful cuts, and Wiliam Bukový’s mood-swinging score. At times, it appears that Sirový leans on Jan Němec’s masterful debut ‘Diamonds of the Night’ (1964), although his piece is not nearly as bleak, nor does it slip into surrealism, with tonal oscillations handled deftly.

10. Jowita / Jovita (Janusz Morgenstern, 1967)

Daniel Olbrychski – memorable as a leading protagonist in Andrzej Wajda’s masterful epic ‘The Ashes’ – brings playboyish charm to the role of an architect and athlete, Marek Arens, whose obsession with an enigmatic woman from a masquerade party leads him down the spiral of frustration and self-pity. His flings, as well as an ostensibly meaningful romance with Agnieszka (Barbara Lass, utterly delightful), and frequent visits to concerts of classical music, are all captured in captivating B&W (Jan Laskowski, who was also behind the camera of Morgenstern’s sparkly debut ‘Good Bye, Till Tomorrow’), accompanied by mood-establishing, if slightly underused jazzing by saxophonist Jerzy Matuszkiewicz. Helmed with a keen sense of modernity characteristic of the European cinema of the time, Jowita is a delectable treat for any 60’s-loving movie buff.

11. L’ordre et la sécurité du monde / Last In, First Out (Claude D’Anna, 1978)

“Where imperialism is retreating, it is robbing, destroying and starving. Rich countries are preparing a bloody future for themselves.”

Three years after ‘Trompe l’oeil’, Marie-France Bonin (aka Laure Dechasnel) and Claude D’Anna come up with another mystery as co-writers and star + director duo, but this time, they take cues from Hitchcock and Melville, with some proto-Lynchian vibes channelled through Dennis Hopper’s Methadrine-sniffing, Frank Booth-anticipating baddie, Medford. Set against some shady dealings involving higher-ups from European and American fractions opposed over a vague Third World exploitation business, the opaque thriller-drama revolves around Hélène Lehman (Bonin), a young woman mistaken for a spy after a passport mix-up with Bruno Cremer’s journalist hero, Lucas Richter, on the railway line from Paris to Zurich. Although dialogue-heavy, and reliant on long-distance calls turned leitmotif of sorts, the film is fraught with tension simmering under its ‘autumnal’ surface, and establishing an atmosphere at once gravely conspiratorial and frigidly melancholic, permeated with the oppressive sense of urgency, paranoia and danger. Emphasizing the gloom is Eduard van der Enden’s neo-noirish cinematography of predominantly muted colors, and clickety-clack humming of a train sparsely interrupted by a jazzy / electronic score intermittently elegiac and foreboding. 

12. Slike iz života udarnika / Life of a Shock Force Worker (Bahrudin ‘Bato’ Čengić, 1972)

Brimming with bitter irony and unwavering determination, ‘Life of a Shock Force Worker’ employs acerbic humor and meticulously composed vignettes somewhat reminiscent of Parajanov’s tableaux vivants or rather, pieces of naïve art to tell the story of the rise and fall of proletariat, focusing on a Bosnian coal miner, Adem. Based on a script co-written by director Bahrudin Čengić, and Branko Vučićević (Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator / Innocence Unprotected / Early Works), this satirical dramedy is beautifully lensed by acclaimed cinematographer and filmmaker Karpo Aćimović Godina (The Medusa Raft, also penned by the aforementioned Vučićević), featuring an authentic cast of both professional and non-professional actors.

13. La vocation suspendue / The Suspended Vocation (Raúl Ruiz, 1978)

Watching a film signed by Raúl Ruiz always poses a challenge, and ‘The Suspended Vocation’ situates itself in the pantheon of the most difficult ones. Semantically complex and formally playful, this unconventional drama is – on the surface – about ideological disputes between two fractions, the Devotion and Black Party, within French Catholic Church. However, it delves much deeper than that, into the (left-wing) politics, the nature of cinema, philosophical conundrums, as well as into one’s own dichotomies reflected in the film’s ‘dual’ structure, with Pascal Bonitzer and Didier Flamand portraying a protagonist, father Jérôme, in color and B&W parts, respectively. Add to that the fact that Ruiz operated in exile, and you’re in for a Borgesian treat, impossible to grasp in one viewing, and too heady in its intricacies to be approached again. One thing is sure, though, and that is the beauty of cinematography by Sacha Vierny of ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ fame, and Maurice Perrimond who collaborated with Ruiz on ‘The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting’ released in the same year.

14. Plaisir d’amour / The Pleasure of Love (Nelly Kaplan, 1991)

Cécile Sanz de Alba, Dominique Blanc and Françoise Fabian are all superb as witty seductresses Jo, Clo and Do in Nelly Kaplan’s sexy, campy, quirky, surreal, visually stunning and most elegantly directed comedy.

15. Lekcja martwego języka / Lesson of a Dead Language (Janusz Majewski, 1979)

“I cannot fight evil. What shall we fight and what for anyway? We live in void. We have impressions and hallucinations sometimes, but no one really knows, what it is.”

An allegorical, stunningly framed chronicle of a dying, morally ambiguous soldier at the end of the Great War, operating as a moody meditation on death.

Nov 14, 2023

Nikola Gocic: Bridging Realms Through Digital Collage

A wonderfully penned article titled Nikola Gocic: Bridging Realms Through Digital Collage and providing insight into my collage art practice has been published today on AATONAU - a platform dedicated to promoting talented artists worldwide.

Nov 1, 2023

Best Premiere Viewings of October 2023

1. Koński ogon / The Horse Tail (Justyna Łuczaj, 2023)

In a modern re-imagination of the Oedipus myth, first-time director Justyna Łuczaj discovers sublime beauty amidst mud, garbage and intricate relationships stained with traumas and erotic tension. Setting her (superb!) debut in an unwelcoming middle-of-nowhere – various decrepit locales in Poland and Slovakia – surrounded by a lush forest, she confidently builds a weird, borderline post-apocalyptic world, far removed from regal Thebe. Her hero is a young, orphaned outcast, Maj (a bold big-screen inauguration for magnetic Remigiusz Pocica), raised by a peculiar ‘daddy’ figure, Hans (uninhibited Przemysław Bluszcz, giving off some Udo Kier vibes), the boy’s estranged mother is an elderly sex-worker, Diana (the phantasmal presence of Ryta Kurak), and king Laius’s reflection is a deranged policeman, Max (Wojciech Bialas, imposing as a vile embodiment of toxic masculinity / authority).

They all yearn for love, each one in their own (degenerate?) way, and incessantly fail to achieve it, although Maj is allowed a few moments of tenderness with his (yet unknown to him) half-sister Dagmara (Anouchka Kolbuch) whose character shines a short-living light of hope and innocence on her sibling’s bleak struggle. Dark hairs (of the titular horse tail?) float down the river, as a warning of impending doom, all the while the toothless narrator (Tomasz Mularski) – a deliberate vulgarization of Greek chorus – adds a few more pinches of filth into a fragmented, provocative and to a certain point puzzling narrative. Łuczaj demonstrates uncompromising resolve in her formally challenging, subtly transgressive portrayal of lost, lonely, loveless souls, eliciting immediate performances from a largely non-professional cast, and transforming the obscure reality of her protagonists into an emotionally raw ‘unreality’, simultaneously surreal, twisted, repellent and fascinating. ‘An acquired taste’ may be an overused phrase, but it certainly applies to this feature which is a strong contender for this writer’s annual Top 5. 

2. Megalomaniac (Karim Ouelhaj, 2022)

At once repulsive and spellbinding, naturalistically dirty and nightmarishly surrealistic, ‘Megalomaniac’ is a relentlessly grim, thoroughly unsettling and viscerally thought-provoking exercise in evil of the human kind, blurring the line between the perp and the victim, reality and fiction. Directed with an assured hand and keen sense of ambiguity which permeates the story (based on a real-life serial killer in 90’s Belgium), it depicts the violence at its most disgusting, venomous and hard-hitting, as it sets a new milestone in the horror genre. Boasting a stylized, darkly arresting cinematography (François Schmitt) and haunting, insidiously evocative score (Simon Fransquet & Gary Moonboots), the film is also praiseworthy for superb performances by the entire cast, particularly from Eline Schumacher, awe-inspiring and subtly unhinged in the role of a mentally unbalanced Martha. A severely underrated flick!

3. Le pharaon, le sauvage et la princesse / The Black Pharaoh, the Savage and the Princess (Michel Ocelot, 2022)

If Michel Ocelot did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. His latest opus – a fairy tale omnibus that celebrates multiculturalism, and mocks autocratic figures – is so enchanting, that I was under its spell the moment it began. Emotionally resonant in their (timeless) simplicity, three stories are presented in a gorgeous animation style that channels the spirits of, respectively, artists of ancient Egypt, the one & only Lotte Reiniger, and masters of arabesque, with the lavish orchestral score elevating the viewing experience. For 80 minutes, I felt like a child listening with wide-eyed attentiveness to the voice of its kind grandfather...

4. Kyōnetsu no Kisetsu / The Warped Ones (Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960)

“Only guys who can’t appreciate jazz get into fights.”

And jazz – turned into a guiding force and even a weapon of sorts – seeps from virtually every pore of ‘The Warped Ones’, not only through its swingin’ soundtrack that dictates its irregular rhythms, but also in the dizzying camerawork that leaves you breathless, more effortlessly than Godard’s seminal work, as well as in the way its anti-hero, Akira, moves and grimaces in his hellbent recklessness, brought to uninhibited life by Tamio Kawaji in the utterly magnetic performance. This young delinquent is hardly a sympathetic fella, but he possesses tremendous bad-boy charisma, and his seemingly inexhaustible energy propels the (anarcho-pessimist?) narrative, demolishing all obstacles like a wrecking ball. According to film critic Tim Lucas, he must’ve served as the inspiration for Alex DeLarge in 1971 rendition of ‘A Clockwork Orange’, especially when a number of parallels between them are taken into consideration. So, could it be that Kubrick had seen ‘The Warped Ones’ in a double bill with ‘A Funeral Parade of Roses’ which is known to have influenced him? Whatever the case may be, Akira is a wild, unstoppable force of nature whose portrait is beautifully painted in euphemisms of a supporting (artist) character (just before he starts choking on a cigarette smoke): “What a muscular, tanned body! And your eyes reflect boredom with modern society. Those dry lips of yours express contempt for society. And that nose! It expresses rebellion against power. The perfect image of a modern man.”

5. Martin (George A. Romero, 1977)

One of the most peculiar and inimitable vampire flicks that I've seen! As intriguing as its titular character (a wonderful debut for John Amplas), it is at once sad, bold, gritty, quirky, intimate, satirical, and mysterious.

6. I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)

Part romantic melodrama veiled in dark secrets of a sugar planter’s family, and part candid reflection on American colonialism, slavery and racism through the prism of Haitian vodou, ‘I Walked with a Zombie’ is one of the most beautiful and poetic pieces of the classical Hollywood cinema. ‘Out-noiring’ film noir with its superbly expressive, shadow-infested cinematography, and depicting the rituals of African diaspora with a rarely-seen respect, it is directed with stately elegance matched by classy performances, particularly from Frances Dee, Tom Conway and James Ellison. Although pretty tame in terms of chill-inducing, as many other horror movies of the time, it bewitches the viewer with its palpable gothic atmosphere, leaving you with a haunting feeling of melancholy...

7. Mammalia (Sebastian Mihăilescu, 2023)

In Sebastian Mihăilescu’s bold fiction feature debut, the existential absurdity of Roy Andersson is filtered through the prism of the Greek Weird Wave (and the Buharov brothers’ work?) into a surrealistic, double-edged satire of gender norms, as well as of any attempt to soften their rigidity. Entirely composed of long and static takes beautifully shot on 16mm, with the main course of action often pushed into the background or even off-screen, this genre-defying experiment poses a formal challenge alleviated by deadpan humor. Its idiosyncratic tableaux vivants turn banalities of life (and the dangers of dildo-carving cults) on their head, putting the viewer in an awkward position between a nervous chuckle and invigorating befuddlement.

8. Suzy Q (Martin Koolhoven, 1999)

In her first collaboration with filmmaker Martin Koolhaven, which is one of the best looking made-for-TV productions, Carice van Houten brings her natural charm and low-key idiosyncrasies to the role of the film’s namesake – a teenage girl who lives in late 60’s Amsterdam and obsesses over Mick Jagger. Granted once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pay a hotel-room visit and enjoy a short bonding-session with her favorite rock star and his then-girlfriend Marianne Faithfull, Suzy makes her domestic situation (shrouded in stepfather’s abuse, mother’s apathy and brothers’ waywardness) just a little less miserable. Sensitive themes – inspired by co-writer Frouke Fokkema’s childhood experiences – are handled with admirable subtlety by Koolhaven who employs mod-esque imagery oozing with vivid colors to blow away the dark clouds looming in Suzy’s sky. The reason for such treatment of the dysfunctional family drama could be justified by his sympathy for the heroine, and desire to protect her at least through the visual poetry, or it can be simply viewed as a reflection of her dreamer world view. On the other hand, the frequent use of perspective-distortion lenses and canted camera angles suggest the psychopathology of the household, anticipating the tragedy...

9. Piaffe (Ann Oren, 2022)

Simone Bucio (of ‘The Untamed’ fame) brings both vulnerability and seductiveness to the role of introvert Eva who is forced to accept the Foley artist job after her sister Zara (portrayed by non-binary filmmaker and performance artist Simon[e] Jaikiriuma Paetau – the star of Piaffe’s spiritual predecessor Passage) suffers a nervous breakdown. While struggling to create sounds for an antidepressant commercial, she unexpectedly grows a horsetail that empowers her to lure a kinky botanist, prof. Novak (Sebastian Rudolph), into a game of submission. And so begins Ann Oren’s weirdly hypnotic, magic realism-inspired examination of identity, gender, and intimacy that blurs the boundaries between humans, plants and animals, pulling you ever-deeper into Eva’s sensuous reality. Resting upon a peculiar kind of cinematic artifice somewhat comparable to the likes of Lucile Hadžihalilović, Catherine Breillat, Jessica Haussner and Julia Leigh, ‘Piaffe’ largely operates like a deliberately stilted tone-poem in which dialogue is eschewed in favor of (powerful) visual and aural stimuli – the warm 16mm cinematography by Carlos Vasquez, and Danylo Okulov’s exquisite sound design, as well as of the film’s dense mood turning quirkier as the story progresses.

10. The Ordinaries (Sophie Linnenbaum, 2022)

A harmonious, genre-bending marriage of a quirky metafilm with a capital ‘M’ and edgy satire on classism and racism, at times eerily evocative of the extreme right chapter in the German history, as well as of New American Apartheid, Sophie Linnenbaum’s graduate film also strikes a finely tuned balance between art and entertainment. Demonstrating ‘ambition and craft on a mightily impressive level’ (Jonathan Romney, Screen Daily), ‘The Ordinaries’ is an insightful dissection of human society, unafraid to lay bare the mechanisms of exclusion which propel it. Set in a world inhabited by the Main Characters straight out of a 50’s musical, Supporting Characters living in Brutalist suburbs, and Outtakes (censored ones, black-and-whites, miscasts, jump-cutters, etc) ghettoized on the outskirts of an Institution-controlled city, this dystopian dramedy can be simply viewed as a meditation on cinema, its rules and ways to break them, subverting the predetermined contrivances. In exploring both the film medium and the class discrepancies, Linnenbaum opts for easily recognizable references, thus making her work accessible to casual viewers and experienced movie-buffs alike. Her Pleasantville-inspired vision may not be revolutionary, but it is wonderfully realized by virtue of highly sympathetic heroine (Fine Sendel), exquisite production design, handsome framing, taut editing, and wittily employed music. (An extra point for a talking Lassie cameo.)

11. Mortal Kombat Legends: Cage Match (Ethan Spaulding, 2023)

Arguably the finest animated feature in ‘Mortal Kombat Legends’ series, ‘Cage Match’ is also one of the most loving homages to the 80’s pop-culture, with its Patrick Nagel-inspired artwork, ‘Miami Vice’ vibes, and synth-heavy score coalescing into both aurally and visually colorful action fantasy whose metafilmic moment involves Jennifer Grey of ‘Dirty Dancing’ fame.

12. Вельд (Назим Туляходжаев, 1987) / The Veldt (Nazim Tulyahodzhayev, 1987)

Irresistibly bizarre, and pervaded by a strong sense of despair that corresponds with the present time, ‘The Veldt’ marks the feature debut for Uzbek (then Soviet) filmmaker Nazim Tulyahodzhayev. An adaptation of Ray Bradburry’s short story of the same name, it blends in motifs from other of his writings into a disjointed, yet intriguing, at times broodingly poetic narrative transcended by the oppressively immersive atmosphere. The film’s bleakly beautiful visuals of washed-out and sepia-tinged colors seem to be inspired by ‘Dead Man’s Letters’ released only a year earlier, and are perfectly suited for the post-apocalyptic setting in which the bioorganic walls of a nursery room act as portals to virtual reality, and the (alien?) doppelgängers of the beloved dead are disposed off by squads in hazmat suits. Emphasizing the dreadfulness of it all are synth-heavy portions of the hauntingly unnerving score that portends tragedy as the outcome of holding on to happy memories for too long, or alienating oneself through technological escapism.

13. Kyūketsu dokuro-sen / The Living Skeleton (Hiroki Matsuno, 1968)

The second of only two films under the helm of Hiroki Matsuno, ‘The Living Skeleton’ is an obscure piece of Japanese gothic noir high on pulp content, beautifully captured in expressive B&W, and shrouded in a bizarre aural tapestry that marks composer Noboru Nishiyama’s swan song, occasionally giving off some Spaghetti Western vibes! Although it lacks in an actual living skeleton – there’s only a bunch of immobile (and unrealistic ones) chained to the sea bottom, the film delivers other genre goodies, such as a ghost ship veiled in fog, vengeance from beyond the grave (or is it?), necrophilic priest twist, and bodies melting in acid. Densely atmospheric for most of its running time, and in the final third, outrageously campy, it also features hokey bats on strings flying around like some crazy red herrings, and seems pretty bold (as in ‘a freighter massacre prologue’ bold) for its time, finding its anchor in swell central performances, as well as in versatile direction.

14. Через тернии к звёздам (Ричард Викторов, 1981) / To the Stars by Hard Ways (Richard Viktorov, 1981)

(watched the 20th anniversary cut by director’s son Nikolai Viktorov)

Appearing as if she time-traveled from the distant future to the early 1980’s, Yelena Metyolkina is a perfect casting choice for a humanoid alien created through genetic engineering, with her unorthodox beauty often glorified or even fetishized through the lens of Aleksandr Rybin and Shandor Berkeshi (restoration). In other words, her very screen presence is so strong, and her character so wonderfully outworldly, that she is the reason enough to give the film a try. Flawed, yet fascinating, ‘To the Stars by Hard Ways’ aka ‘Per Aspera Ad Astra’ opts for epic proportions, cramming in a plethora of topics of ethical, ecological, emotional and political concerns in its two hour running time, which is often reflected in tonal inconsistency. In turns high-brow, campy, cartoonish, philosophical and experimental, it takes the viewer from the 23rd century Earth to the fictitious planet of Dessa, successfully setting both utopian and dystopian societies against the Brutalist architecture. Although its ideological context is excised in 2001 cut, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist degree to recognize it in the anti-corporate sentiment of the final third which anticipates Lopushansky’s masterful debut ‘Dead Man’s Letters’ in certain sepia-toned sequences. Somewhat quaint (and delightful at that!) in its 60’s and 70’s-inspired aesthetics, Viktorov’s highly ambitious feature is a neat treat for those who love their sci-fi weirder than usual.

15. Elvira Madigan (Bo Widerberg, 1967)

“To borrow another person’s eyes... to experience the world as your beloved sees it and feels it. Isn’t that what love is?”

The anti-war sentiment and free love philosophy of the 60’s counterculture movement densely permeate Widerberg’s period drama (and director’s first color film) based on a short-lived affair between slackrope dancer Elvira Madigan (born Hedvig Jensen, 1867-1889) and dragoon lieutenant Sixten Sparre (1854-1889). Somewhat naive in its hyper-romanticism dangerously close to slipping into self-parody, and accentuated by Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467, ‘Elvira Madigan’ is gorgeously photographed, every frame imbued with painterly qualities. However, it is not all poetic, ‘fingers and raspberries dipped in thick cream’ rapture, because the opening epigraph informs us of a murder-suicide fate of star-crossed lovers, so the dark clouds incessantly loom over the bright, bucolic imagery elevated by Pia Degermark and Thommy Berggren’s strong chemistry and pleasant screen presence.

16. No One Will Save You (Brian Duffield, 2023)

I have a very soft spot for (almost or completely) wordless films, especially when the absence of dialogue is not a mere gimmick, but it actually makes sense, as in Duffield’s sophomore directorial effort. A follow-up to his explosive coming-of-age extravaganza ‘Spontaneous’, ‘No One Will Save You’ comes across like ‘Home Alone’ during ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ set in ‘A Quiet Place’, not because one must remain silent, but rather for having nobody to talk to. Proudly wearing all of the influences on its sleeve, this home + alien invasion flick is a rare example of ‘elevated horror’ that provides intense edge-of-the-seat excitement prior to revealing its metaphor-inscribed cards. Tropey and referential to its core, from the Roswell Greys-inspired designs for uninvited visitors, to a trauma-struck heroine, Brynn (wonderfully fleshed out by virtue of Kaitlyn Dever’s utter commitment to a demanding role), the film makes the most of the threadbare concepts, and is unafraid to tap into some deliberate silliness for the sake of fun that many recent genre-offerings have been drained off. Directed with aplomb and grounded in the arresting central performance, it explores the themes of estrangement, guilt, anxiety, and the nature of spectatorship, ending (openly?) on a sardonically optimistic note. It doesn’t revolutionize cinema, nor does it need to, but at least it doesn’t babble you into tedium.

17. Itim / The Rites of May (Mike de Leon, 1976)

A feature debut for director Mike de Leon, leading actress Charo Santos, and both cinematographers, Rody Lacap and Ely Cruz, ‘The Rites of May’ (original title literally translates as ‘black’) is a solid horror drama light on scares, but heavy on atmosphere, with superbly moody visuals that evoke European arthouse cinema of the time. Similarly to many genre offerings from Asia, it treats superstition with utmost seriousness, so it requires some extra effort in suspension of disbelief, and it hints at its twist too early, slowly threading to a predictable denouement...

18. Um Fio de Baba Escarlate / Name Above Title (Carlos Conceição, 2020)

A surrealistic, giallo-inspired experiment that utilizes zero dialogue and hyper-stylized visuals to satirize celebrity culture, with one actress playing all the victims, and overt religious symbolism literally hammering the message to the audience.

Honorable (short) mentions: Agnès Varda - Pier Paolo Pasolini - New York – 1967 (Agnès Varda, 2022) and Hymn to Persephone (Angelina Voskopoulou, 2023).

Oct 20, 2023

Body Issues (Marjorie Conrad, 2023)

“If you’re not afraid of this world, you should be...
... Their inner psychos are coming out.”

Spoken by a protagonist, Jane, whose face remains hidden behind the camera, these words ring eerily true, reflecting her paranoid mentality, as well as the disorienting point of view which sends you on a nocturnal journey of (phantasmal) confusion. Who is she? A young content creator taking a stab at a less conventional fare, or a wandering, disembodied consciousness, alien or AI-generated, ‘struggling to establish connection with her body’, as noted in the synopsis? Is she even alive? Considering the lines such as ‘everything outside smells like week-old corpses’ (heard during the very first minute) and ‘I think I died right over there’, Jane may be but a restless spirit; a ghost of a suicide or homicide victim remembering her past life in fragmented soliloquies.

Regardless of the answers to these questions, Marjorie Conrad delivers another boldly experimental feature – a follow-up to her vampyric tone-poem Desire Path – that constantly keeps you guessing, as it pulls you in Jane’s ‘inner labyrinth’, and leaves you with an unreliable narrator as the only guide. Shot with a GoPro on Washington locations (streets, parking lots, motel rooms, parks and beaches) at wintry nights, in the form of a found-footage horror, Body Issues is one hardly classifiable piece of cinema. Part introspective essay that hangs above the thin line separating life from death, and part moody city symphony or rather, elegy distorted through the prism of the loneliness affliction, the film feels like a heavy dream in which you’re enveloped in darkness, and lost in a place you can’t recognize. Its lo-fi aesthetics of tenebrous visuals, dizzying montages, brooding sound design and whimsical electronic score are all beautifully matched to the dense, nightmarish atmosphere that brings to mind Philippe Grandrieux and David Lynch (in the Inland Empire element).

(The review is based on the private screener provided by the author.)

Oct 1, 2023

Best Premiere Viewings of September

1. Totsukuni no Shōjo / The Girl from the Other Side (Yutaro Kubo, 2022)

Nothing short of a modern anime classic, though bound to appeal to a niche rather than mainstream audience, Yutaro Kubo’s impressive feature debut attains an almost perfect balance between the unconventional style and gloomy content. Part melancholic tone-poem, and part mystery-imbued fantasy of the Victorian Gothic atmosphere, it appears like a soothing soul successor to Oshii’s masterpiece ‘Angel’s Egg’ and Takahata’s magical swan song ‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’. Based on Nagabe’s manga previously adapted into a (lovely!) short in 2019, it gently addresses the themes of loneliness, ostracism, surrogate parenthood, the loss of innocence and death, drawing you into its quaint, peculiar world with an irresistible charm. Favoring lyrical mood over puzzling story, ‘The Girl from the Other Side’ rests upon a dreamy, hauntingly poignant score, and a delightful hand-drawn artwork akin to a childhood-favorite picture-book, with Jun Fukuyama’s and Rie Takahashi’s superbly attuned voices breathing life into leading characters.

2. La mort trouble / The Unquiet Death (Claude d’Anna & Férid Boughedir, 1970)

At the time of the film’s release, French writer and journalist Louis Chauvet (1906-1981) described it as ‘a cinematographic treatise on insanity and degradation’ for Le Figaro. And if I were asked to draw parallels with other filmmakers whose work I’m more familiar with, I’d probably say ‘Alain Robbe-Grillet by way of Nikos Papatakis’ or ‘Godard perverted through the prism of Zwartjes’ or ‘Losey’s ‘The Servant’ transmuted by Panic Movement’s anarchic insurgency’, with each comparison meant to be the highest compliment. As brazen as its protagonists – three sisters and their late uncle’s butler, all fucked-up excuses for human beings, ‘The Unquiet Death’ plunges the viewer into a twisted game of shifting power dynamics, exploring gender disparities, class struggle and racial tension in an increasingly radical series of formally daring vignettes that see the quartet emanating dangerous amounts of unnerving energies, anticipating Żuławski’s singular oeuvre. Delightfully scandalous and forcefully liberating, this rarely seen piece of (experimental) cinema redefines the overused ‘acquired taste’ phrase, and makes you want to paint yourself in primary colors and throw eggs at everyone that annoys you at the moment.

3. Le collier perdu de la colombe / The Dove’s Lost Necklace (Nacer Khemir, 1991)

A delightful co-production of Tunisia, France and Italy, ‘The Dove’s Lost Necklace’ is the second part in Nacer Khemir’s ‘Desert Trilogy’ which is deeply rooted in medieval Arabic Romanticism. Chronicling an elliptical search for the (unfathomable) secrets of love, it immerses the viewer in a world of calligraphers, booksellers, cursed princes, and mysterious disappearances, and invites you to observe it through the prism of childlike wonder. Sublimely poetic to its very core, it weaves the soft threads of micro-stories into the tapestry of the main narrative, rich with colors and folklore, undulating in an unhurried, hypnotic rhythm of a dream stolen from a rose (a reference to one of the lines). Similarly to its equally magical predecessor ‘Wanderers of the Desert’ (1984), it easily earns comparisons with Pasolini’s ‘Arabian Nights’ (1974) and Parajanov’s mystical artistry, with Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s drama ‘Gabbeh’ (1994) crossing the mind as a perfect companion piece.

4. Genji Monogatari / The Tale of Genji (Gisaburō Sugii, 1987)

“An autumnal farewell needs nothing to make it sadder. And enough of your dismal songs, crickets.”

Written by poet and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu more than a millennium ago, ‘The Tale of Genji’ is considered a classic of Japanese literature and the world’s first (psychological) novel. Depicting the lifestyle of Heian courtiers, it chronicles romantic adventures of emperor’s son Hikaru Genji, and his internal agony caused by the unhealthy obsession with his young stepmother, Lady Fujitsubo. For Gisaburō Sugii’s feature – a true gem of the 80’s anime – screenwriter Tomomi Tsutsui adapts the first twelve chapters of Shikibu’s voluminous oeuvre into a solemn, lyrical melodrama of carnal desires, political intrigues and metaphysical reflections. Her measured approach is wonderfully matched by Sugii’s restrained and unhurried direction, unique art style inspired by illustrated handscrolls (emakimono), as well as by a haunting blend of traditional and electronic music composed by Haruomi Hosono – the leader of Yellow Magic Orchestra and one of the most influential J-pop figures. Due to the budgetary constraints, animation is limited, yet the artists find a number of creative ways to keep you immersed in their elegant, sophisticated visuals, whether it is Genji’s reality or his stream of consciousness portrayed.

5. Adieu Philippine (Jacques Rozier, 1962)

A spiritual sequel to Rozier's 1958 short ‘Blue Jeans’, ‘Adieu Philippine’ feels like an intoxicating injection of concentrated ‘joie de vivre’. It fizzles with youthful energy emanating from the leading trio of non-professional actors whose naturalness is perfectly matched to the freewheeling spontaneity of the narrative. The superb interplay of craftily edited visuals and vivacious score provides a refreshing sensorial experience.

6. Trompe l’oeil / The Broken Mirror (Claude d’Anna, 1975)

A missing link between ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘L'hypothèse du tableau volé’, with ‘Judex’ referenced, or ‘Panna a netvor’ anticipated in the highly surrealistic coda, ‘The Broken Mirror’ revolves around a painting restorer, Anne (Laure Dechasnel), who suffers a prenatal depression. Her fragile mental health is worsened by the frequent absence of her ostensibly carrying husband Matthew (Max von Sydow), the visit of her nagging and inquisitive mother (Micheline Presle), the recent event that left her partially amnesiac, and a mysterious man of the proto-Lynchian kind who lives in a supposedly vacant house across the street. 

As the boundaries between Anne’s reality, dreams and memories are blurred, the viewers are left to their own devices to unravel the mystery, or simply immerse themselves in meticulously composed images which beautifully capture the extremely moody set designs – the ornate predecessors to ‘Lost Highway’ modernist interiors, and an exact reflection of the heroine’s loneliness and troubled state of mind. The illusory nature of the narrative is hinted in the original title – a term describing optical trickery in fine art, as well as in Jan van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini Portrait’ shown during the opening credits, with lush ambiguities and glacial pacing, particularly during the first hour, further thickening the heavy atmosphere of consuming melancholy. Claude d’Anna directs this befuddling psychological melodrama with grim elegance, eliciting a superb performance from Laure Dechasnel in a role which marks her debut, and provides her with a sturdy support in von Sydow and Presle.

7. Talk to Me (Danny & Michael Philippou, 2023)

“To all the parents with sleepless nights,
Tie your kids home to their beds,
clean their heads...”
(The Cranberries / Salvation)

A strong feature debut for Philippou brothers, ‘Talk to Me’ is a highly effective amalgam of a depressing (or rather, distressing?) coming-of-age story, wicked satire of Generation Z ‘culture’, and doom-laden allegory of addiction, neatly packed as an intense horror flick – visceral, creepy and tinted with black humor. Though its protagonists are far from being sympathetic, they are all portrayed with verve rarely seen in recent genre offerings, making for believable counterparts of common sense-lacking TikTok users. And being YouTubers, the Philippous demonstrate absolute understanding of these young people, so they employ their dumbassery to the film’s advantage, and despite supernatural elements, capture the frightening zeitgeist of our times in a way that couldn’t be more realistic. On top of that, they deliver a good deal of memorable scenes, the most nightmarish being a short, yet oppressively orgiastic vision of hell.

8. Bye, Bye Love (Isao Fujisawa, 1974)

Boy meets girl who turns out to be a boy in Isao Fujisawa’s only feature, rediscovered in 2018, four decades after striking a chord with the free love generation. Inspired by Nouvelle Vague and the New Hollywood, it plays out like a road movie with an antiestablishment, zero-fucks-given attitude written all over it. Splashed with primary colors, and imbued with poetics of political revolt, gender fluidity, sexual confusion, antisocial wandering and nihilist romanticism, it feels like an anarchist’s lullaby, at once crude and sensual, just like its Bonnie and Clyde-like antiheroes, Utamaro and Giko. Speaking of whom, they are portrayed with sparkling immediacy by non-professionals Ren Tamura and Miyabi Ichijō, and taken on a meandering adventure by Fujisawa’s affection for the cinema of freewheeling sensibility.

9. Lucie perd son cheval / Lucie Loses Her Horse (Claude Schmitz, 2021)

Angela Schanelec in her ‘Der traumhafte weg’ element meets Eugène Green (or rather, Julian Radlmaier?) with a neon-drenched hint of David Lynch in a peculiar meta-narrative revolving around actress Lucy Debay whom you may have seen externalizing her inner wolf in Little Red Riding Hood-inspired revenge thriller ‘Hunted’. She portrays herself or at least an alter-ego version of herself who’s torn between the private and professional life, film and theatre, repeatedly whispering ‘don’t lose the track of things’ as a mantra. We meet her enjoying summer-day activities with her daughter Nao and grandmother Geneviève (both playing themselves) before she finds herself wandering the windswept hills of medieval yore, in search of her horse. Subsequently, she’s joined by two friendly female knights also left by their animal companions, and together they relish precious small moments, until they wake up during chaotic preparations for a stage production of ‘King Lear’...

The sudden changes of place and time convey a sense of disorientation, thus putting the viewer not only in the heroine’s armor, but also in other characters’ shoes, given that they all appear to be wandering around, dazed and confused. The cast is minimal, yet superbly naturalistic during a ‘slow, dreamlike descent into a theatrical wonderland laced with absurdist humour and deadpan drollery’ (Allan Hunter, Screen Daily), as Schmitz reflects on his own post-Covid experience, without ever reminding you of a lockdown. It does take some time to attune to the film’s tricky formal traits and shenanigans – in fact, the ‘accommodation’ is never complete, but the puzzling experience of sinking into an artist’s limbo – at once unaffected and completely soaked in artifice – is strangely intoxicating. Framed in Academy ratio, often static tableaux vivants of ‘Lucie...’ are alluring in their down-to-earth simplicity, capturing the human condition in a way that suggests some serious speed decrease.

10. Radúz a Mahulena / Raduz and Mahulena (Petr Weigl, 1970)

Heavy on symphonic score (Josef Suk) and symbolism – in poetic dialogue, lavish colors, natural elements, and the killing of the sacred deer, Petr Weigl’s adaptation of Julius Zeyer’s dramatic poem is a rapturous fairy tale whose formal artifice (read: hyper-theatricality) and subtle eroticism enhance its dreamlike and myth-like qualities. Ascetic in its set design, the film makes great use of fields, forests and medieval ruins, anticipating Lech Majewski’s ‘Rycerz’ (1980), whereas the fluttering garments bring to mind the Sapphic horror-fantasies of the 70’s French cinema, such as ‘Morgane et ses nymphes’ (1971). Somehow, even the bare-chested knights in black leather pants fit in, and they seem to be the norm in both feuding kingdoms of Maguria and Tatra, about to be united by virtue of the fate-and-sorcery-defying romance between the titular characters. Superbly portraying Raduz and Mahulena are, respectively, prolific Czech actor Jan Tríska, and Magda Vásáryová of ‘Marketa Lazarová’ fame.

11. Il bell’Antonio / Handsome Antonio (Mauro Bolognini, 1960)

The line between comedy and melodrama often gets blurred in Bolognini’s satire of patriarchy, church, toxic masculinity and rich bourgeoisie co-written by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Gino Visentini, after the novel of the same name by Vitaliano Brancati (Journey to Italy). Erectile dysfunction of the titular hero (portrayed with a dignified demeanor and romantic melancholy by Marcello Mastrioanni) becomes not only a marriage issue, but the talk of his hometown (Catania, Sicily), revealing the hypocrisies and double standards of the society scornful towards the vulnerable. The sanctity of matrimony and genuine love are twisted and turned into the subjects of ridicule by the very ones who ought to preach it, with the phallic potency crowned as the Lord of sustainability, which lends the authors a lot of space for the exploration of empathy... or the lack thereof, all through the keen eyes of cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi.

12. Furut / Strings (Sourish Dey, 2023)

Resistance against the humiliating hierarchies of the society that treats millions of humans as mere products is effectively, if not always artfully, transformed into another formally challenging ‘cinexperiment’ from Sourish Dey whose absurdist drama ‘Tiger’ was one of this writer’s 2022 favorites. Set inside a nightmarish reflection of our own world, ‘Strings’ eschews traditional storytelling in favor of visually arresting, symbol-driven vignettes that see the characters hopelessly employing their dreams and desires in an endless struggle with oppressive structures and the representatives thereof. Although born in a cage, these ‘birds’ don’t think of flying as an illness, but their attempts to fly away are continually thwarted (and ridiculed) by those in power, leaving them writhing in their own wishful thinking. Clearly recognizable in the feature’s feverish ‘patterns’, the repetitive nature of everyday life is of no help either, with the embodiment of time posing as a reminder of ineluctability. Dey’s pessimistic vision which gives off some Vipin Vijay, Qaushiq Mukherjee (aka Q) and even Isao Yamada vibes is beautifully lensed by Rajib Sengupta who occasionally takes blurry cues from Christopher Doyle.

13. Capra cu trei iezi / The Goat and Her Three Kids (Victor Canache, 2022)

Based on the famous Ion Creangă’s fable comparable to the darkest of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, ‘The Goat and Her Three Kids’ works quite smoothly as a blend of folk and home invasion horror leading to the revenge denouement, with human characters standing in for the anthropomorphic ones. Staying true to the (19th century) source material – a cautionary note on motherhood, (dis)obedient children and unscrupulous men, it appears even more terrifying, not only in what it shows, but also in what it suggests. Although both the protagonists and a villain remain archetypal, the nuanced performances, especially from seasoned actors Maia Morgenstern (mother) and Marius Bodochi (big, bad wolf), make them believable. Add to that a dense atmosphere of a remote forest setting, authentic production and costume design, moody cinematography and haunting score, and you have yourself a promising feature debut. Primarily working in front of the camera, Victor Canache directs the film with a steady hand, and makes the most of the economic running time, minimal cast and beautiful location.

14. I lunghi capelli della morte / The Long Hair of Death (Antonio Margheriti, 1964)

Released in the same year as ‘Castle of Blood’ (originally, Danza Macabra) also helmed by Margheriti, ‘The Long Hair of Death’ is an enjoyable, densely atmospheric gothic horror inspired by Mario Bava’s ‘Black Sunday’, with Barbara Steele’s strong screen presence challenged by that of Halina Zalewska, and Riccardo Pallottini’s gorgeous B&W cinematography keeping your eyes glued to the screen, in spite of the flawed narrative. 

15. Das Phantom von Soho / The Phantom of Soho (Franz Josef Gottlieb, 1964)

A missing link between neo-noir and giallo, ‘The Phantom of Soho’ is one of numerous ‘krimi’ adaptations of Bryan Edgar Wallace’s novels, boasting some brilliant camerawork by Richard Angst, and tight editing by Walter Wiscchniewsky, with Martin Bötcher's sultry jazz score perfectly matched to the striptease club milieu. Violence is pretty tame when compared to the Italian murder mysteries, so no blood is shown in any of the stabbings, and killer’s glittering gloves don’t look as threatening as the leather ones, but the film is a solid chunk of pulp cinema nevertheless.