1 Aug 2020

Cinematic Favorites 07/20

This July was hot as hell (which also reflects the current state of affairs), so I decided to make a devilish choice of 6 'old-timers', 6 recent features and 6 shorts I loved the most out of approx. 90 films I watched...


1. The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre (Joseph Stephano, 1964)

2. The Mask (Julian Roffman, 1961)

A great B-noir/horror whose highlights are three gorgeously nightmarish 3D sequences directed by Slavko Vorkapić, the co-author of 1928 experimental film The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra. What's fascinating about these trips 'deeper into subconscious' is that you don't even need special glasses to enjoy the psychedelic imagery replete with skulls, thick fog, occult rituals and disfigured faces!

3. Oxygen (Matjaž Klopčić, 1970)

"The government is murder! The government is suicide! A revolution is the present! A revolution is excitement! It's a dance! It's a scream!"

Oxygen sees a journalist, Marko (Stevo Žigon), and his wife, Patricija (Polish actress Małgorzata Braunek who would appear in Żuławski’s The Third Part of the Night a year later), getting involved in a surreally depicted struggle between young revolutionaries and repressive establishment whose agents rarely leave the couple a moment of peace. By virtue of Milka Badjura's ingeniously hectic, dizzying and whimsical editing that would give even the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers run for their money, one gets easily disoriented in this dystopian, anti-illusionary, formally challenging, 'Kafka meets Godard under the hippie sun' drama set on an imaginary island, and playing out on the border between pamphlet and poetry, dream and reality, fiction and documentary.

"Borders need to be erased. Then we will move into the world of fantasy."

4. The Detective and Death (Gonzalo Suárez, 1994)

Filmed in Poland and set over the course of one long night, this Spanish neo-noir is quite a strange, hardly classifiable beast. Featuring a superb cast led by Javier Bardem (as a no-nonsense detective, Cornelio, boldly objectified in the opening scene) and Maria de Medeiros (as a clumsy, stuttering mother, Maria, unwillingly pulled into a deviant game of shady characters), the film unfolds as a surreal, somewhat melodramatic and borderline absurd narrative in which the big, incestuous baddie portrayed by Héctor Alterio is referred to as Gran Mierda (lit. Big Shit). Puzzling and (decidedly?) incoherent, it feels like a sullen, unrhymed ode to death sung with a tongue-in-cheek attitude.

5. Song of the Forest (Viktor Ivchenko, 1961)

Starring absolutely charming and graceful Raisa Nedashkovskaya as forest spirit Mavka, this folk fairy tale brimming with dreamlike imagery is a delightful treat for the Soviet-era fantasy aficionados. 

6. Prime Cut (Michael Ritchie, 1972)

A cool, slightly off-beat gangster flick worthy of watching for Lee Marvin's bravura performance alone, and not to mention the adorable Sissy Spacek and an intense scene involving a combine harvester...


4. The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror (Raúl Ruiz & Valeria Sarmiento, 2020)

Restored by his wife Valeria Sarmiento and flawlessly dubbed thanks to a lip-reading expert, Ruiz's unfinished 1967 film is another brilliant addition to the Chilean master's opus. Part psychological drama, part black comedy (borderline horror?), and all a formally challenging piece of (nightmarish) cinema, it is soaked in a stifling, claustrophobic atmosphere achieved through the frequent use of unnerving close-ups (and creeping wigs!) accompanied by the ominously haunting score from Jorge Arriagada. Once it reaches its midpoint, the film is 'black-lodged' to the start, with parts of the Distorting Mirror half rendered in a photo-novel manner.

6. Gundala (Joko Anwar, 2019)

A refreshing take on the superhero subgenre, Gundala presents a pretty successful blend of socio-political drama and martial arts action sprinkled with some quirky humor and bits of Javanese mythology. Its greatest strengths lie in well-rounded performances, solid fighting choreography and atmospheric visuals, whereas the flaws begin to surge during the final act which introduces some new, out-of-nowhere characters who will probably be opposing Gundala or joining his ranks in the upcoming sequel(s). Even if you don’t like the movies with spandex/leather-wearing protagonists, you may want to give this one a chance...


3. JYOTI and JOYMOTI (Mehdi Jahan, 2017)

In his fascinating, cinematically eloquent debut, Mehdi Jahan blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, life and death, personal history and that of his native region of Assam, and immerses the viewer in a dense, oneiric atmosphere effortlessly established through deliberate pacing, lyrical narrative, moody B&W visuals, elegiac flute melody and old radio broadcasts that mark the 'silent to talkie' transition. From the largely non-professional cast, he elicits powerful, borderline Bressonian performances and imbues his film with a keen sense of mystery...

4. Songs From Far Away Land (Tuhinabha Majumdar, 2020)

A subtly surreal, profoundly poetic and deliberately paced drama boasting elegant direction by Tuhinabha Majumdar, delicate performances by the entire cast and wonderful, highly atmospheric cinematography by Sathanand Rangaraj, especially during a tracking overhead shot that captures a mesmerizing dance choreography. In its constant overlapping of dreams, memories and reality on the border between life and death, Songs From Far Away Land takes the viewer on a spiritual journey, with the ancestors' ghosts acting as sage guides. The film's soul is so big, that it is overwhelming! It would be a great companion piece to Alexander Sokurov's Mother and Son or Aditya Vikram Sengupta's Jonaki

Two usher boys seduce a mermaid, red-haired nymphs and other mythological characters with Dior's 2020-2021 Haute Couture collection in a visually splendid, dialogue-free fantasy softly veiled in evocative, ethereal music and meticulously directed by Matteo Garrone. Although an entirely different animal, it easily ranks with some other successful fashion ad films, such as David Lynch's Lady Blue Shanghai (made also for Dior) and Luca Guadagnino's The Staggering Girl (for Valentino).

Beautifully illustrated and animated, with a subtle, minimalist score to boot, Mom plunges the viewer into a cruel, desensitized dystopia that our society has dangerously approached to. Under ten minutes, firsttimer Kajika Aki Ferrazzini demonstrates lush talent, her strong, occasionally surreal visuals bringing the names of Jean Giraud Moebius, René Laloux, Satoshi Kon and Jérémie Périn (of the Lastman fame) to one’s mind.

31 Jul 2020

Valley of the Gods (Lech Majewski, 2019)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼(☼) out of 10☼

The Navajo mythology and an anti-capitalist parable seamlessly blend in Lech Majewski's surreal, mystical, self-reflexive and highly idiosyncratic tour de force which stars Josh Hartnett as a troubled, old-fashioned writer, John Ecas, who reluctantly accepts the challenge of embracing the absurd, and John Malkovich as an eccentric zillionaire, Wes Tauros, who can only feel peace 'when reduced to nothing', with Keir Dullea (of the 2001: A Space Odyssey fame) in the supporting role of a suave butler, Ulim. Cryptic, fragmented, uncompromising, deliberately paced and brimful of classical music and fascinating imagery ranging from imposing rocky deserts to snake limousine to flamboyant, baroque interiors of Mr. Tauros’ mountain top castle, Valley of the Gods is one of those films that you either adore unreservedly or hate the guts of. Once the credits rolled, I wished to watch it and experience its inviting strangeness again...

29 Jul 2020

The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre (Joseph Stefano, 1964)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼(☼) out of 10☼

The sole directorial credit in the opus of Joseph 'the screenwriter of Psycho' Stefano is a supernatural horror that was planned to be a pilot episode for a new show in a similar vein as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits (also written by Stefano), but was deemed too scary for the television and scrapped. More than half a century later, it resurfaces (partly thanks to the 2018 Blu-ray release) and it turns out to be nothing short of a flawed masterpiece.

The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre stars Martin Landau as a suave, wealthy architect, Nelson Orion (as in the constellation, in his own words), who lives in a modern and, in terms of statics, seemingly impossible house propped on a cliff over the beach. In his spare time, Mr. Orion becomes 'proto Dylan Dog' who doesn't like to be referred to as medium, and refuses to charge for his services if the haunting of his clients proves genuine. Hired by Vivia Mandore (Diane Baker, fresh out of Marnie), he is about to investigate the case of disturbing telephone calls that have been troubling Mrs. Mandore's blind husband, Henry (Tom Simcox), who believes his possessive mother is trying to control him and, what's worse, drive him mad from beyond her (open) grave. Suspiciously coinciding with this hullabaloo at the Mandore estate is the arrival of a mysterious new servant, Paulina, portrayed by Dame Judith Anderson in a menacing manner which recalls her role of Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's Rebecca.

Right from the get-go, Stefano is determined to impress the viewer, and he does succeed in his intention, with the panoramic view of Los Angeles - initially appearing as a foggy graveyard - being 'swept away' by sea foam in a stunningly edited transition that is followed by the introduction of the protagonist and his cool, borderline surreal place of residence. But, even cooler are the Mandores' gothic manor and their family mausoleum in which shadows waltz the Danse Macabre in gorgeously lensed scenes evoking the masterpieces of German Expressionism through densely atmospheric lighting. It is there, amongst the dead (and their restless spirits), where Nelson has his first encounter with Vivia, and where Conrad Hall (who would work as DoP on the one and only Esperanto-spoken horror Incubus two years later) excels in every single frame. Those 15 minutes alone are the reason enough to watch the film, and not to mention that the rest of it is also packed with strong, engaging visuals brimming with style and as such, worthy of big-screen viewing. Their beauty is elevated by Dominic Frontiere's dramatic, tension-rising score complemented by unearthly soundscapes.

Equally captivating is a slightly pulpish story which thematizes guilt and finds its foundation in the idea that we all are, in one way or another, being haunted, whether we believe in ghosts or not, like Nelson's voice-of-reason housekeeper, Mary Finch (Nellie Burt, highly sympathetic). It is well-paced, oft-generating moments of spine-tingling eeriness, and handled with great confidence, even during the parts that seem to serve no purpose other than prolonging the running time (from TV episode to feature-length format) and/or adding a layer of quirkiness to the proceedings (code: blonde on the beach). Lending it gravitas is the entire cast who does a tremendous job of breathing life into characters most of whom are heavily burdened by their past, and are trying to escape it. Especially commendable is Landau's performance tinged with subtlety, stoicism and hints of melancholy...

Many are the qualities to cherish here, so it is such a shame that Stefano never set in a director's chair again.

27 Jul 2020

The Metaphysician's Dream (William Kersten, 2020)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼

Inspired by the work of Giorgo de Chirico, Yves Tanguy, Jean Cocteau and the Quay brothers, The Metaphysician's Dream is another superb addition to the pantheon of surreal stop-motion films. Elevating its classy appeal is the fact that it is virtually a one-man show - William Kersten is its director, animator, cinematographer, production designer and music composer, with the elegant score of oneiric proportions performed by the Vienna Symphonic Library software.

Inviting you into a vast, phantasmagorical world is a mellifluous and somewhat mysterious opening track which accompanies decidedly archaic, silent era-inspired title card, credits and epigraph, and fades to silence pierced by a subtle needle-on-a-worn-record crackling. After the curtains are drawn open, we enter a delightfully retro atelier-laboratory where a couple of scientists or rather, alchemists are about to consult their books and perform a series of puzzling experiments resulting in an interdimensional exchange of sorts. As the title suggests, a highly unconventional story plays out like a dream, so most of it is left to the viewer to decipher, or simply allow it to be smitten by its magic.

Amongst the apparatuses and contraptions of obscure purpose, neatly shelved bottles containing various potions, and concrete blocks turned cosmic kaleidoscopes, one can easily get lost, but the non-speaking protagonists seem to know exactly what they are doing. Appearing as wooden mannequin dolls with heads of expressionless Hellenistic sculptures, they may be viewed as modest embodiments of some mystical, supernatural entities who hold the secrets of the multiverse, and are in complete control of time-space. As they establish a link between the past and the future through their present (and cryptic / esoteric) actions, Kersten approaches his cosmogonic fantasy (and perfection) with high attention to details, and in a tight, fifteen-minute frame, he delivers spellbinding imagery in spades, not wasting a single frame of a wonderful old-school animation. Beiges, browns and grays of his characters' bodies and sets are beautifully complemented by vivid colors of props and lighting, whereby the soft focus is frequently used to enhance a hypnotic, ethereal atmosphere. On top of that, The Metaphysician's Dream is paced so smoothly that watching it feels like drifting on a cloud. Kersten's meticulousness, vitality and creativity are pure inspiration...

The film is available on the author's official YouTube channel:

26 Jul 2020

Knives and Skin (Jennifer Reeder, 2019)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼(☼) out of 10☼

Firmly embracing pure, unruly weirdness and constantly pushing it to the fore, Jennifer Reeder delivers a boldly unconventional coming-of-age drama / pseudo-noir thriller in which a young girl disappearance reveals true colors of a small town community. Although they're not 'beautiful like the rainbow', the Argento-esque, vividly surreal lighting of Christopher Rejano's admirable cinematography turns the rural Midwest - the twisted story's setting - into a wondrous theatre of the absurd. The tightly-knit lives of a few highly dysfunctional families sink into small-scale chaos of perverse secrets, toxic romances and mental breakdowns, with all the characters, both adolescent and adult, hopelessly lost in their 'magical' microcosm(s). Pervaded by delicate choral covers of the 80s pop songs, the dream-reality of Knives and Skin provides the viewer with a rather bizarre experience, as the film makes its baby steps towards the cult status.

21 Jul 2020

Call for Dreams (Ran Slavin, 2018)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼

"Is the dreamer dreaming the dream? Or is the dream dreaming the dreamer?"

Great many are the filmmakers (or artists, in general) who have attempted to provide the answers to the quoted questions, and yet these questions stubbornly keep lingering without any definite answers. In case of Ran Slavin's sophomore feature which teases the prospect of parallel realities, they can be rephrased as following: "Is the viewer watching/dreaming the film? Or is the film watching/dreaming the viewer?" 

There's no doubt the Israeli visual artist and composer is enamored or rather, obsessed with the borderless kingdom ruled by Hypnos, considering that Call for Dreams explores the very same ideas found in his debut The Insomniac City Cycles. However, his second venture into the world emerging from the REM phase proves to be more successful than the previous one, resulting in an enigmatic, phantasmagorical neo(n)-noir that twists and breaks the thin line between video art and (experimental) cinema.

Set during the rain-drenched nights in Tokyo, an unruly, highly unconventional story revolves around a lonely Japanese woman, Eko (the admirable low-key portrayal by the firsttimer Mami Shimazaki), who runs an unusual call service for dreamers, while a worn-out detective, Ruven (Yehezkel Lazarov, excellent), investigates a murder case in Tel Aviv. The two are connected via an intricate web of dreams enacted in a series of surreal rituals, part Lynchian, part Matthew Barney-esque, and inhabited by a mysterious middle-aged man (murderer?), Russian mobster and his bodybuilder henchwoman, as well as an eccentric security guard who lives by samurai code, but also loves to spy on his neighbor.

When and where the reality ends and the fantasy begins is hard to tell, and for that very reason, Call for Dreams is incessantly intriguing. Slavin boldly refuses to adhere to a three-act structure so instead, he opts for a lyrical, borderline abstract narrative in which the main protagonist could be an elusive, "master dream" entity in control of individual dreams. From that perspective, Eko, Ruven and the rest of the gang are but puppets in the "hands" of that undefined force (the joint soul of the aforementioned cities?) who seems to act in accordance with the adventurous helmer, pulling us deeper into its/his/her extremely oneiric game of ever-changing rules.

The experience of playing this game is comparable to the falling through a bottomless rabbit hole, yet knowing that you are perfectly safe, because there is no beginning and no end, only the soft, mesmerizing, ostensibly infinite middle. And what makes your fall so pleasing is the surrounding imagery - crisp, meticulously composed, bathed in colorful lights and complemented by moody score. Even the obviousness of computer-generated effects works to the advantage of vivid visuals, and emphasizes the film's enticing artifice, whereby the sparseness of dialogue intensifies the strong flavor of eye-candy, and leaves you with plenty of space for contemplation. I will be eagerly looking forward to Slavin's following dream...

The film can be streamed @ Vimeo on Demand and Amazon Prime.

17 Jul 2020

Between the Shadows (Alice Guimarães & Mónica Santos, 2018)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼

Once in a while, a (short) film comes along and steals your heart. In this particular case, heart-stealing is also the trigger of a quirky story told from the perspective of a protagonist, Natália (Sara Costa). Stuck in a dead-end job (that requires an extra pair of attachable hands), she is a clerk in a bank where people deposit their hearts instead of money. After being contacted by an enigmatic private eye (Gilberto Oliveira), her tedious life gets injected with a risky dose of excitement and eventually, she is faced with a choice of giving up her own heart or keeping it for herself.

As we follow our heroine and her newfound friend evading some pesky shadow agents, Guimarães and Santos pull us ever-deeper into a surreal world that is an overt, passionately written love letter to the 1940s film-noir and art-deco aesthetics. They make brilliant use of a bewitching combination of stop-motion animation and live-action imagery gorgeously photographed by Manuel Pinto Barros, and perfectly complemented by decidedly retro, smoky-jazz-bar-esque score by Pedro Marques. Aware that every second matters in a tight time-frame, they resort to witty and imaginative transformations of the intricately crafted mise en scène, frequently relying on dream logic. To put it simply - their work oozes with so much (hyper)style that it can easily act as a substitute for substance. Add to that many bizarre details with little devils in them and you have yourself a definite must-see!

The film can be rented @ Vimeo on Demand platform for a very affordable price.