Sep 15, 2023

A Selection of Recent Artworks (XVIII)

With a total of 700 pieces, Bianco/Nero solidifies its place of my most voluminous project (in fact, it did that at 100 collages, I just went a bit overboard with challenging myself), posing as a vehicle for the transmutation of despair, a reflection and refraction of the innermost workings, a multitude of realities within a stubbornly pursued dream, a visual manifesto of concrete rules and ethereal transgressions. It bridges an illusory gap between the past and the future, rejecting the present for a surreal coexistence of all-time and no-time, as it feeds on unadulterated obsession, transcending its creator...

Discover more collages @ NICOLLAGE

Icaro, il Filosofo / Icarus, the Philosopher

Il Cavaliere dell'Inversione / The Knight of Inversion

Preparativi per la Fine / Preparations for the End

Melodramma Infernale / Infernal Melodrama

Pifferaia / Piper

Una Simulazione del Volo della Musa / A Simulation of the Muse's Flight

Biglietto di Sola Andata per Marte / One-way Ticket to Mars

Sep 8, 2023

A Selection of Recent Artworks (XVII)

From the latest revival of my voluminous Bianco/Nero series planned to be expanded to 700 pieces.
See more @ NICOLLAGE.

Sulla Schiena del Drago / On the Dragon's Back

Dissonnia / Dyssomnia

Forma Pura / Pure Form

Questo non Farà Male / This Won't Hurt

La Revisione delle Nuvole / Clouds Overhaul

Curiosità (Senza Gatto) / Curiosity (Sans Cat)

Tre Segreti dello Sciamano / Three Secrets of the Shaman

Farfalle / Butterflies

Nuova Realtà / New Reality
inspired by a shot from Angel's Egg (Mamoru Oshii, 1985)

Chi ha Ucciso i Conigli? / Who Killed the Rabbits?
inspired by a shot from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Raccolta dell'Acqua Piovana / Collecting Rainwater

Frammenti / Fragments

Sep 1, 2023

Best Premiere Viewings of August 2023

1. El extraño caso del doctor Fausto / The Strange Case of Doctor Faust (Gonzalo Suárez, 1969)

An overdose of distilled cine-madness of Zwartjes, Jodorowsky, or Clémenti-like kind, ‘The Strange Case of Doctor Faust’ is one of the most unorthodox, and not to mention inspiring (mis)treatments of Goethe’s play. Narrated through the fourth wall by Mephistopheles himself, from a spaceship owned by ‘nameless beings from an unidentified place in the universe’, it sees Faust interrupted by a telepathic embodiment of Sphynx, and introduces us to his son Euphorion – from a marriage with Helen of Troy – who grows into an Icarus-inspired acrobat. But, recounting a story would be rather pointless, as it (smoothly!) operates like a delirious dream conveyed through the exhilarating use of distorted camera angles, bizarre montages, and cacophonous musical delights. Suárez – at what is certainly his most experimental – directs with gleeful irreverence, great energy, and childlike playfulness informed by bold disregard of conventions, creating a seductive, one-of-a-kind piece that you either unconditionally love (like this writer) or hate so much that you immediately want to unfriend whoever recommended it to you.

2. L’envol / Scarlet (Pietro Marcello, 2022)

Once again, Pietro Marcello delivers a wondrous piece of cinema that is lost and beautiful (a reference to his 2015 docu-fantasy-drama ‘Bella e perduta’, for the uninitiated) – lost in time, as it appears like a precious artifact from the 20th century, and beautiful not only on the utterly charming surface, but also at its big, unprejudiced heart. A loose adaptation of Alexander Grin’s 1923 novel ‘Scarlet Sails’, the film – in spite of its simplicity – poses a challenge when it comes to the classification, gently meandering between a period coming-of-age drama and a whimsical fairy tale, a socially conscious ode to craftsmanship and a rapturous poem of love, platonic, familial and romantic.

Set between the two World Wars, ‘Scarlet’ belongs to neither the past, nor the future, appropriating the outsider attitude of its protagonists who live modestly, yet complacently, ever-strengthening their libertarian spirit, and bonds of togetherness, guided by intuition and creative impulses. Revolving around an idealized father-daughter relationship, it portrays peculiarities of life in broad, yet sensitive strokes filled with dreams, longing and nostalgia. Its delightful 35mm cinematography lends it a soft, almost palpable texture, as well as an exquisitely painterly quality, further enhanced by seamlessly interwoven archive footage which is given a hand-tinted-like overhaul. The harmonious symbiosis of visuals and narrative evokes the delicate lyricism of Franco Piavoli, with Gabriel Yared’s emotional score bringing to mind the yearning romanticism of Jacques Demy, particularly during the musical acts of the amiable heroine, Juliette (an unaffected performance from newcomer Juliette Jouan).

3. Un lac / A Lake (Philippe Grandrieux, 2008)

Eighty minutes of sublime intensity. In mesmerizing chiaroscuro closeups. In breathtaking totals reflecting the environment’s hostility. In mystery surrounding the characters and their spatio-temporal setting. In every touch they share, and prolonged silences that shroud them. In the dense, doomy atmosphere oozing from the screen, and plunging you into a void of cinema. In soft focuses that put you in a hypnagogic state. In the tremulous camerawork, the breathy soundscape, and the micro-acting of a small, yet devoted cast...

4. Moon Garden (Ryan Stevens Harris, 2022)

In his sophomore feature, Ryan Stevens Harris casts his own daughter as a comatose girl struggling to regain consciousness after a freak accident at home. Her name is Haven Lee and she is heavenly as the five year old heroine Emma stuck in a nightmare intertwined with past events that help her find her way back to reality. A simple tale is rendered with an astounding amount of creativity that puts the viewer in Emma’s tiny shoes, chiming in with her limited perspective, and wide-eyed curiosity. And those eyes – so innocent and sincere!

‘Moon Garden’ is a dark fantasy with horror undercurrents, so there has to be a monster. That role is filled by Morgana Ignis under a heavy mask, as a void-faced boogeyman Teeth that appears like the Pale Man’s equally grotesque cousin who escaped from the hell of Phil Tippett’s masterpiece ‘Mad God’. Speaking of inspiration sources, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is the first one that comes to mind, but think Švankmajer’s stop-motion version by way of David Lynch and Dave McKean (Mirrormask). The industrial dreamscape where Emma’s eerie adventure begins may be taking cues from Wes Craven’s seminal shocker ‘A Nightmare on the Elm Street’, whereby lighting often suggests Bava and Argento. Steampunk elements, such as a tear-collecting machine, evoke Caro & Jeunet’s ‘The City of Lost Children’, with the precious memories of time spent with mom and dad channeling Terrence Malick’s poetic sensibility. Some parallels can also be drawn with Neil Jordan’s ‘The Company of Wolves’, and there’s even that frequently quoted ‘Alien 3’ shot, but make no mistake – ‘Moon Garden’ is not just a sum of its influences.  Harris rises high above mere mimicry, delivering a film that is both visually and aurally dazzling, emotionally resonant, and tailor-made for the central performance that puts Haven Lee on the map of the finest child actors in the history of cinema.

5. Müanyag égbolt / White Plastic Sky (Sarolta Szabó & Tibor Bánóczki, 2023)

Being a sucker for both post-apocalyptic fiction and rotoscoped animation, I am utterly impressed by the first collaborative feature from Sarolta Szabó and Tibor Bánóczki. Set 100 years in the future, ‘White Plastic Sky’ explores the burning issue of ecological sustainability, proposing a society that sees humans turned into trees once they reach 50. Opening in domed Budapest where holographic flora adorns a memorial park, its melancholy-fueled story moves on to the high-security ‘Plantation’ which introduces the viewer with the process of euthanizing transmutation, and later on, across the eroded wasteland and ghost towns remaining in the aftermath of a high-level devastation. In a manner that is in equal measures thought-provoking and de-sentimentalized despite a ‘parents who lost a child’ cliché attached to the film’s emotional core, it chronicles a return to a place that may become Eden with no humans to exploit it senselessly, shining over and again in the world-building department. A seamless blend of traditional and modern techniques – reportedly, 8 years in production – results in beautiful, immersive visuals of hyper-stylized realism, with sober pacing allowing us to feel all the textures, and an unobtrusively wistful score elevating the watching experience. 

6. Baron Prášil / The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Karel Zeman, 1962)

You can never go wrong with Karel Zeman – one of the greatest cine-mages of the last century, especially if you’re into Jules Verne’s writing, Gustave Doré’s artwork, and/or Georges Méliès’s innovations in the field of film. A lavish ode to the highest form of imagination, the fanciful adventure that is ‘The Fabulous Baron Muchausen’ is larger than both life and death, flying you all the way to the Moon where Cyrano de Bergerac resides, and taking you on a dive into the ocean depths, amongst the mermaids and four-legged seahorses. Its intricate amalgam of live-action and animation, with actors in lavish costumes parading against deliberately unrealistic matte paintings, and across engraving-like sets, is the stuff that dreams are made of, constantly keeping you in the state of wide-eyed wonder. And the lies served by Zeman’s hero, a benign romancer, ring truer than those of ‘dangerous fantasists’ in our post-truth times...

7. Peščeni grad / A Sand Castle (Boštjan Hladnik, 1962)

Made under the strong influence of French New Wave and other modernist tendencies of the time, ‘A Sand Castle’ operates as a sunny ode to joy (of youth and freedom), but hiding behind its smiling mask, and often rearing their ugly heads are fear, anxiety and disenchantment. (Nevertheless, the bleak epilogue still comes across as a slap in the face.) The aura of carefreeness emanating from simple pleasures on an aimless off-road adventure gets mixed with an air of bitter melancholy or rather, premonitory signs not only of a protagonist trio’s personal collapse, but also of the society’s decline in the following decades. Normalcy and happiness embodied by Milena Dravić’s troubled character both fall under the category of illusion, one that crumbles as soon as real life kicks in. But, this mirage is beautiful and energizing while it lasts, its transience bewitchingly captured by the eternity of cinema.

8. Dani / Days (Aleksandar Petrović, 1963)

At his most Antonioni-esque, Aleksandar Petrović – best known for ‘I Even Met Happy Gypsies’ (1967) – weaves a tone poem of big city loneliness, and the magic of human contact, both transient and transcendent. In psychologically penetrating close-ups, he captures the emptiness that has been consuming the two leading characters, Nina (Olga Vujadinović) and Dragan (Ljubiša Samardžić), and saves them – if only for a day – from their own, disoriented selves. Through the masterfully composed bird-views of crowded marketplace and streets (many kudos to DoP Aleksandar Petković), he emphasizes the alienating, labyrinthine nature of the (modern) world that surrounds them, and allows them a cathartic release of emotional tension in a few scenes, the most memorable being the one towards the end, of driving across an empty airfield, and yelling from the top of their lungs. Their escape from the everyday routine – starting with a chance meeting – may be short, but it provides a new (and anti-conformist) outlook at both life and art. 

9. Kapi, vode, ratnici / Raindropas, Waters, Warriors
(Živojin Pavlović, Marko Babac & Vojislav ‘Kokan’ Rakonjac, 1962)

The influence of La Nouvelle Vague is strongly felt in one of the pioneering works of Yugoslav Black Wave – a formally balanced omnibus synergized by the theme of death, and beautiful B&W cinematography by Aleksandar Petković. It opens on a borderline-surreal note, with a word-free segment ‘Live Waters’ (Živojin Pavlović), set in a poor, muddy settlement by the river, while focusing on a young girl who lives there, and a stranger running away from the police. The pervading silence is disturbed only by ambient noise, shouting children in paper masks (who give off some serious ‘Lord of the Flies’ vibes), and towards the end, dramatic score and gunshots which destroy a warm, yet short-lived connection between the two characters. A truly fascinating experiment wholly dependent on the actors’ body language, and the eloquence of superbly edited imagery. Marko Babac’s ‘Small Square’ – a clever allegory on the effects of propaganda – comes across as the most accessible in the ‘triptych’, depicting a clash between optimist and pessimist perspectives in the confines of a hospital room. Marked by the brilliant use of (claustrophobic) close-ups, it is also memorable for its dark sense of humor demonstrated in a scene of deliberate incongruence between visuals and music. The last, but not least is Kokan Rakonjac’s ‘Raindrops’ – a Godardian take on a dying romance between an alcoholic and his girlfriend, featuring a painting by great Ljuba Popović in the antihero’s apartment. Olga Vujadinović is as charming as Jean Seberg in ‘À Bout De Souffle’ or Ana Karina in ‘Vivre sa vie’, and the jazzy, oh-so-60’s atmosphere easily finds its way into a cinephile’s heart.

10. Vital (Shin’ya Tsukamoto, 2004)

Shin’ya Tsukamoto trades the frenetic energy of his most famous works for the meditative calm in brooding psychological drama ‘Vital’ that sees a young amnesiac, Hiroshi (portrayed with melancholic detachment by Tadanobu Asano), facing the loss of his (death-obsessed) girlfriend, Ryōko (the sole acting credit for dancer Nami Tsukamoto). The fragmented and deliberately paced story of grieving and regaining memories takes a subtly morbid twist with another woman, enigmatic Ikumi, and anatomy classes in a medical school, yet the elements of body horror for which the author is recognized remain but an echo muffled by bleakly poetic reveries. For that reason, the most avid fans of the ‘Tetsuo’ trilogy may be caught completely off guard by this peculiar piece of cinema which cuts deep into one’s psyche, rather than flesh, as it blurs the boundaries between the real and imagined. Although there are a few sequences of hectic montages, ‘Vital’ is dominated by a funereal mood – the courtesy of haunting soundscapes and austerely composed visuals, landing a strong emotional punch in its denouement.

11. Barbie (Greta Gerwig, 2023)

‘Barbie’ is a film that shouldn’t work, and yet it does – so admirably! Elaborate in its simplicity, and quite clever behind its silly facade, it examines a number of topics, from feminism and self-actualization to love, death and existential crisis, in a package that is blatantly sincere, thoroughly entertaining, laugh-out-loud funny and dazzlingly beautiful. It wears its numerous and incongruous influences on its sleeve, proudly and fabulously, reflecting on real and imaginary worlds of our creation, in a fashion that is equally satirical and escapist, decidedly on-the-nose, yet strangely sophisticated, and brimming with glittery self-irony. Gerwig’s direction couldn’t be more playful and the casting choice of Margot Robbie couldn’t be more on point, with both of these women’s hearts in the right place.

(This mini-review was not sponsored or endorsed by Mattel.)

12. Die Nackte und der Satan / The Head (Victor Trivas, 1959)

Anticipating ‘The Brain That Wouldn’t Die’ with several of key plot devices, ‘The Head’ shares one of its production designers, Hermann Warm, with the quintessential piece of silent horror cinema, ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’, cinematographer Georg Krause with Kubrick’s ‘The Paths of Glory’, and sees veteran Swiss-French actor Michel Simon (L’Atalante) as the (unfortunate) head from the English version of the title. That is quite a pedigree for a B-movie based on a silly premise treated mostly with a straight face, and directed by an Academy Award nominee who collaborated with Orson Welles! Anyhow, the film looks beautiful, with its Bauhaus-esque functionality filtered through the prism of German expressionism, which lends it a dense neo-noir atmosphere complemented by a compelling jazz score, in turns mysterious and swinging. An extra dose of mystery is provided by its villain, Dr. Ood, portrayed by steely-eyed Horst Frank whose magnetic performance ranges from subtly creepy to a raving madman predating the ‘Cage rage’.

13. Trotocalles / Streetwalker (Matilde Landeta, 1951)

A cautionary tale from one of the first Mexican women who successfully fought their way to the director’s chair, ‘Streetwalker’ is an elegantly crafted melodrama anchored in Landeta’s artfully composed helming, the powerhouse central performance from Miroslava (who would tragically end her own life in 1955), with a perfect counterbalance in Elda Peralta’s Maria/Azalea, and captivating, film noir-influenced cinematography by Rosalío Solano.  

14. Brigitte Bardot cudowna / Brigitte Bardot Forever (Lech Majewski, 2021)

Reminiscing his childhood and adolescence in Poland behind the Iron Curtain, Lech Majewski adapts his novel ‘Pilgrimage to the Tomb of Brigitte Bardot the Wonderful’ into an increasingly surreal drama that sees his alter ego, Adam, on a quest for truth about his pilot father. While watching Godard’s ‘Contempt’ in the cinema, the boy is teleported into Brigitte Bardot’s dressing room which opens the doorway into a world where Cézanne and Tagore coexist with The Beetles, Liz Taylor (as Cleopatra), Raquel Welch (in iconic fur bikini) and Roger Moore’s Simon Templar. Adam’s reveries – which, inter alia, include Ms. Bardot using a magic wand to turn her interviewer into a pig – are brought to vivid life through excellent production design and handsome cinematography, though comparisons with Majewski’s earlier works make his latest offering less appealing. Nevertheless, ‘Brigitte Bardot Forever’ provides an enjoyable viewing experience blanketed in warmth and nostalgia, with Kacper Olszewski – looking at least five years younger than he actually is – delivering a sympathetic performance in the central role. Now I wonder if my impression would’ve been the same, if the subtitles had been available...

Aug 1, 2023

Best Premiere Viewings of July 2023

1. Anmonaito no sasayaki wo kiita / I’ve Heard the Ammonite Murmur (Isao Yamada, 1992)

“The angle of the amethyst crystal lattice has some peculiar characteristics, doesn’t it? Dreams melt away in such circumstances.”

Inspired by the relationship between novelist and poet Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) and his younger sister, Toshi, ‘I’ve Heard the Ammonite Murmur’ is an enchanting mood piece / experimental drama unfolding almost dialogue-free in a surreal interzone between memories and dreams where the past, the present and the future co-exist and overlap. Its sublimely lyrical (non)narrative is anchored in stunningly composed imagery which effortlessly evokes the spirit of Shūji Terayama (1935-1983) with whom the author collaborated as a member of the artistic crew in both theatre and cinema. Reaching all the way to the viewer’s subconscious or rather unconscious self, Yamada’s feature debut opens a doorway towards a universe of quietude that welcomes you with the gentlest of embraces, and suspends you in time, with each precious moment spent there bearing a quintessence of eternity...

2. Utopia (Sohrab Shahid Saless, 1983)

Penned with a strong anti-capitalist sentiment, directed with a clockwork precision, and photographed with a rigorous sense of mise en scène that evokes Fassbinder, ‘Utopia’ is nothing short of a devastating, highly distressing masterpiece further elevated by admirable central performances from Imke Barnstedt, Gundula Petrovska, Gabriele Fischer, Johanna Sophia and Birgit Anders who portray prostitutes working under a fascist, misogynistic pimp, Heinz (Manfred Zapatka, absolutely terrifying in his role). The oppressiveness of the film’s atmosphere – as tangibly nightmarish as it gets – is emphasized by the elegant, yet claustrophobic setting that is an apartment adapted into an exclusive brothel, a prison of tortured souls...

3. Khane-ye doust kodjast? / Where Is the Friend's House? (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987)

Directing a simple, yet meaningful and deeply humane coming-of-age odyssey with an admirable ease, in a rural setting that couldn't be more authentic, Kiarostami captures one of the purest performances by a child actor whose facial expression feels like a reflection of innocence, kindness, confusion, dilemmas and wide-eyed curiosity contained within the boy's universe...

Not a single word is spoken in Samuel Tressler’s bold, dazzlingly beautiful feature debut which transmutes the Leda myth into an ethereally uncanny nightmare, part surrealistic period piece and part highly poeticized gothic psychodrama. Decidedly elliptical in its storytelling or rather ‘storyshowing’, this superb indie flick comes across as a cryptic, sensorial mood piece delicately touching upon a childhood trauma, rape, madness, loneliness and pregnancy. Densely atmospheric, in equal measures ominous and soothing, it unfolds in a deliberate pace towards a subtly visceral epilogue that further amplifies the all-pervasive ambiguity. Tressler and his co-writer Wesley Pastorfield keep pulling the rug from under the viewer’s feet, and each time they do so, you find yourself falling deeper into the rabbit hole of Leda’s dreams, memories and hallucinations. All the while, cinematographer Nick Midwig lulls you into a dreamlike state with eloquent B&W imagery immersed in a hauntingly minimalist score by Andre Barros and Björn Magnusson.

Highly recommended for the fans of ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’ (1943), ‘Angel’s Egg’ (1985), ‘Under the Skin’ (2013) and ‘November’ (2017).

5. Erosu purasu gyakusatsu / Eros + Massacre (Yoshishige Yoshida, 1969)

In real life, no human has escaped death; in cinema, no character has been liberated from the frame. Yoshida emphasizes these inevitabilities, particularly the latter, by imprisoning his protagonists within windows and doors, trapping them inside mirrors, and hiding them behind sliding panels, shooting them through branches, and drowning them in bright light or in the void of darkness, always looking for a new, usually twisted angle. Frequently, he obstructs their bodies and/or subjects them to negative spaces, as if mocking their attempts to attain freedom, paradoxically lending them eternity by virtue of geometrically rigorous compositions. His formal radicalism and the story – a poeticized biography of Japanese anarchist Ōsugi Sakae (1885-1923) paralleled by the (superficial?) modern-day examination of his theories – seem to co-exist in a dysfunctional marriage, and yet they feel like a perfect match. The audience is left to their own devices in figuring out the way through Yoshida’s labyrinth where every word should be taken with a pinch of salt, and every image could be accepted as sublime...

6. Siembra (Ángela Maria Osorio Rojas & Santiago Lozano Álvarez, 2015)

A fiction debut for documentarians Ángela Maria Osorio Rojas & Santiago Lozano Álvarez, ‘Siembra’ is a powerful social drama set in Afro-Colombian community, and dealing with forced migration, loss and grief. Beautifully shot in silvery black and white which emphasizes the all-pervading sense of nostalgia, the film marries the veracity of grim realism (not unlike that of the Yugoslav Black Wave) to pure, heart-wrenching poetry (influenced by Pedro Costa?), as it chronicles the sorrowful story of an aged farmer, Turco. Expelled from his land at Pacific coast into a life of poverty in the city of Cali, and losing his hotheaded, street-dancer son, Yosner, to a bullet, this wretched soul (portrayed with stoic poignancy by folk musician Diego Balanta) wanders the limbo of despair in search for the last glimmer of hope. Dignified in his mourning, Turco sheds no tears until the cathartic conclusion – one of many highly expressive close-ups – that sees him singing a moving elegy for Yosner. Speaking of songs, music plays an important role for people of ‘Siembra’, both in their festivities and final farewells, elevating the conspicuous humane aspect of the directorial duo’s taut screenplay. Rojas & Álvarez make the most of the economic 80-minute running time to plunge us into the bleak world of their protagonists (largely played by non-professionals), convey the mood and emotions by virtue of visuals rather than dialogue, and utilize some genre-bending and smooth tonal shifts to great effect. 

7. Saules aveugles, femme endormie / Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (Pierre Földes, 2022)

I am not familiar with Haruki Murakami’s short stories the film is based upon (I’ve only read ‘Dance Dance Dance’ several years ago), but I will surely be keeping my eye on composer turned filmmaker Pierre Földes. Addressing the stresses of everyday life and attempts of ordinary people to find its meaning (if any), ‘Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman’ is a finely nuanced amalgam of light philosophical musings and quirky flights of fancy. Magic realist at its core, it introduces an anthropomorphic, Nietzsche-and-Hemingway-quoting frog as one of the guides in interconnected existential crises of three people stuck in their dead-end job, marriage or solitude. At once detached and compassionate, this fantasy-drama flows like a slightly disorienting dream in which almost each encounter gives off a Schrodinger’s cat vibe, and the cat has both the first and last name – Noboru Watanabe. The employed technique of animation similar to rotoscoping goes well with the liminal realities of the narrative, with Földes’s piano-heavy score conveying the brooding, yet comforting feeling of chronic melancholy.

8. The Naked Kiss (Samuel Fuller, 1964)

The slick performance from Constance Towers, beautiful cinematography by Stanley Cortez (Night of the Hunter), and Samuel Fuller’s no-nonsense direction pose as driving forces of what is arguably one of the most slyly feminist 60’s B-movies with a sharp auteur edge. It is almost everything that you expect from a film which opens with a bald prostitute beating her pimp with a handbag, only to unveil all of the provincial hypocrisies later on...

9. Легенда о ледяном сердце (Эльдар Шенгелая & Алексей Сахаров, 1958) /
The Legend of the Icy Heart (Eldar Shengelaia & Aleksey Sakharov, 1958)

A feature debut for both Shengelaia and Sakharov, ‘The Legend of the Icy Heart’ is inspired by a Kirghiz folk tale and Wilhelm Hauff’s 1827 fairy tale ‘Das kalte Herz’. Set in what was the present back then, it tells a love story of a beautiful opera singer, Aynakan, and a young shovel operator, Meerkan, kept apart by an evil theatre director, Kambar, and guided by an ashik narrator whose character introduces the elements of metacinema. Quite impressive in terms of production design, art direction, cinematography and music, this charming modern fantasy brings to mind Powell and Pressburger’s works from the late 40’s, with some of the lighting schemes anticipating the 60’s Bava. The directorial duo elicit superb performances from the cast, helming with lighthearted touch and awaking the inner child in this viewer who understands but a few words of Russian, yet needs no subtitles to enjoy the beauty at display. 

10. Thérèse Desqueyroux (Georges Franju, 1962)

Unfolding at a leisurely pace which underlines its bleakness, ‘Thérèse Desqueyroux’ is a brooding character study of a despairing woman portrayed with a remarkable subtlety, mystery and sympathy by Emmanuelle Riva. The magnetic central performance is beautifully matched by Franju’s tactful, disciplined direction, and the expressive B&W cinematography (Raymond Heil & Christian Matras) that is particularly befitting of the depressing second act. A haunting psychological drama with a feminist edge.

11. Obaltan / Aimless Bullet (Yu Hyun-mok, 1961)

A cinematic equivalent of desperation, ‘Aimless Bullet’ is an unsparing portrayal of grim reality in post-war South Korea. Taking cues from neorealism and film noir, its author makes sure the viewer deeply feels the oppressiveness of pitch-black shadows, and the coldness of walls in existential prison, impossible to escape from. Extremely powerful, and not recommended for people suffering depression and anxiety.

“Inside the unknown, you’re alive, really alive. It’s the most beautiful place to be.”

Soft shades of Pygmalion and Orpheus myths permeate a largely non-verbal story of a grieving artist, Oliver Black (Xander Berkely of ‘Candyman’ fame), whose gradually liquefying reality is gorgeously captured in dreamy, illuminated cinematography (Hanuman Brown-Eagle) of hyper-saturated colors, and misty, ethereal score (Heather Schmidt) of whispery piano, sobbing strings and euphonious chants. Treated with gentleness and poise, the themes of loss and the healing power of art make way for a tone poem-like reflection on both life and the great beyond, challenging our perception of the physical universe, and inviting us to peak into a subliminal dimension. At times, Balderson (Firecracker, 2005) teases the possibility of metaphysical horror, and provides some goosebump-inducing moments, yet his film remains within the constraints of a chamber psychological drama subtly seasoned with humor – the courtesy of John Waters’s regular Mink Stole in the supporting role of an art dealer, Alex. ‘Alchemy of the Spirit’ does stumble here and there, but its honest heart and transcendental qualities far outweigh its flaws.

If you’re looking for a decidedly incoherent film that feels like a possessed fever-dream sequence drenched in colorful neon-lights all the way to its very cores, both demonic and angelic one, then you will have a trippy field day with Arcane and Erskine’s feature debut. Employing hyper-stylized visuals (think N.W. Refn by way of Cattet and Forzani’s fetishism), and haunting soundscapes of heavy breathing, whispery voices, echoing screams, darkly ethereal tunes and foreboding drones, ‘Crucify’ locks you deep inside a subconscious mind of a haunted house and throws the key out of the window... 

(Short) honorable mention: 

A perfect appetizer for the likes of Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’ (1989) and Shozin Fukui’s ‘Rubber’s Lover’ (1996), this 14-minute short looks, feels and unfolds like a surrealistic nightmare in which body horror applies not only to human flesh, but to inorganic matter as well. Created in what appears to be stop-motion technique, with each (originally, live-action) frame rendered in gritty, photocopy-like B&W, ‘Haruko’s Adventure’ is decidedly weird, wondrously unnerving and at times wryly humorous in its raw poeticism and absurdist ambiguity.

Jul 1, 2023

Best Premiere Viewings of June 2023

1. New Religion (Keishi Kondo, 2022)

Utterly hypnotizing in its portrayal of grieving process and its transformative potentials, Keishi Kondo’s crowdfunded feature debut comes across as an impressive calling card not only for its author, but also for a bunch of newcomers in his team, from the entire cast to cinematographer Sho Mishina. (According to IMDb, only colorist Dmitry Kuznetsov and co-editor Aleksandar Milenković have several short films under their belts.) Right from the experimental prologue soaked in deep reds (later turned into a leitmotif) and brooding drones (that dominate the haunting score), ‘New Religion’ pulls the viewer into its disjointed reality – one akin to a dream in which a dreamer is dreamed... perhaps by a moth.

Kondo could be quoting a couple of lines from Cronenberg’s defining body horror ‘The Fly’, yet his keen sensibility is much closer to that of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s brand of ‘slow terror’, as well as to David Lynch’s penchant for the unknowable, cryptic symbolism and bizarre characters... such as a presumably non-human photographer who speaks through an electrolarynx. Both his direction and editing are assured and precise, as he employs meticulously composed imagery, and uncannily immersive sound design to create a dense and heavy atmosphere of bleak melancholy, understated eeriness and deliberate disorientation. Lingering below the ostensibly desensitized surface of his puzzling psychological drama is a creeping sense of madness and dread in the face of a child loss, with the elliptical story unfolding from the unreliable perspective of a heroine, Miyabi (Kaho Seto, admirable at micro-acting). The horror underpinnings may prove too subtle for the hardcore genre aficionados, and the ever-present irrationality will significantly limit the audience, but if you’re looking for something refreshingly off-the-wall, just let ‘New Religion’ convert you... 

2. Kerr (Tayfun Pirselimoglu, 2021)

The echoes of COVID-19 isolation hang on decrepit walls of a small, purgatorial town in Pirselimoglu’s absurdist dramedy that sees its clueless, hapless hero (superbly cast Erdem Şenocak) lost in a Kafkaesque nightmare – as metaphysically inescapable as it gets. Injected with measured doses of wry, deadpan humor, ‘Kerr’ gives no answers to a lot of its questions, putting the viewer in the protagonist’s shoes that go with a dark coat of bewilderment. On the other hand, the embodiment of mystery wears a yellow coat surrounded by a ‘double agent’ aura, and even though her screen time is limited, she heads a weird bunch that wouldn’t be out of place in a David Lynch’s psychological thriller. The same could also be said for a jazzy theme that pays a loving homage to the genius of Angelo Badalamenti, as well as for a dimly lit nightclub, its backstage hidden behind a red curtain. Ever-growing despair is emphasized by the wintry weather, as the loudspeaker announcements warn of rabid dogs prowling the streets, and seemingly bottomless holes appear all around, out of nowhere, sucking in most of the possible meanings. There’s also a murderer on the loose, yet neither the police, nor the people seem to give a damn, their provincial mentality paralyzing Şenocak’s unnamed character. Deliberate pacing intensifies the cold, thick atmosphere of detachment, and the quiet denouement comes across as another ellipsis in this beautifully framed mindfuck of a film.

3. Toldi – A Mozifilm / Toldi – Movie (Marcell Jankovics & Lajos Csákovics, 2022)

Marcel Jankovics (1941-2021) didn’t live to see the feature film version of his 2021 TV series ‘Toldi’, but Lajos Csákovics did a fine job in channeling the visionary brilliance of the late fellow animator. Based on the first part of the epic poem trilogy by Hungarian literate János Arany (1817-1882), and narrated by the ghost of the poet himself (as seen in the sketch portrait by his friend Sándor Petőfi), the film chronicles early exploits of legendary medieval hero Miklós Toldi (cca 1320-1390). He is depicted as a strapping, impulsive young lad whose blonde hair lights up every time strong emotions overwhelm him, turning him into a ‘Son of the White Mare’ look-alike, though a comparison with a super-powered anime character wouldn’t be out of place either. However, the animation style is closer to Dreamworks classics, with certain parts, such as flashbacks, created in the vein of the Codex Manesse illustrations, at once conveying the period setting and adding an extra oomph to already stunning, highly expressive visuals. Beautifully complemented by György Selmeczi’s energizing score, as well as by superb, versatile voice-over from Tamás Széles only, the imagery of Jankovics’ swan song stimulates one’s imagination and awakens the inner child, no matter how heavily it sleeps.

4. Gohiki no shinshi / Cash Calls Hell (Hideo Gosha, 1966)

My first encounter with the work of Hideo Gosha – a noir-anomaly in the chanbara-dominated phase of his career – leaves a strong impression, primarily thanks to the artful framing by cinematographer Tadashi Sakai, and highly memorable set pieces that make great use of locations, from back alleys to industrial sites such as a water purification station. Equally engaging is Masaru Satō’s groovy ‘crime jazz’ score that impregnates drama with a sense of melancholy, and emphasizes both the secrecy and smuttiness of the night when the action usually kicks off. On top of that, Tatsuya Nakadai brings charm and finesse to the role of an antihero, Oida, seeking absolution, and transforming into a savior throughout a story of karmic justice. 

5. Under the Skin (Carine Adler, 1997)

Not to be confused with Glazer’s acclaimed, 16 years younger sci-fi horror of the same name, Adler’s first and unfortunately only feature is a harrowing character study with an outstanding central performance from Samantha Morton. Portraying an extremely vulnerable if not utterly sympathetic young woman, Iris Kelly, who processes her grief through sexual escapades, Ms. Morton is a force of nature! At once raw, subtle and uninhibited in the soul-tearing role, she finds an anchor in Claire Rushbrook’s gentler, complementing take on Iris’s ostensibly balanced sister Rose. Her heroine’s dirty, bumpy fall down the rabbit hole of sanity has a ‘detached poetry’ vibe about it, emphasized through both the hectic movements of Barry Ackroyd’s camera, and Ewa J. Lind’s ‘jumpy’ editing. The film’s soothing resolution comes across as a welcome relief, mental and emotional alike, baring Adler’s empathy for Iris, even at the cost of thwarting her indomitable spirit...

6. Sambizanga (Sarah Maldoror, 1972)

Pervaded by a strong anti-colonialist sentiment, and set at the dawn of the Angolan War for Independence, ‘Sambizanga’ is the pioneering feature produced by a Lusophone African country. Its female perspective provides insight into behind-the-scenes of the struggle, highlighting the solidarity between women, as well as the boldness and practicality of their actions. Unaware of her husband’s involvement with the revolution, the wife of a political prisoner comes face-to-face with the government officials or rather, the Kafkaesque bureaucracy, all the while male dissidents operate in secrecy, gathering info to find out who of their brethren has been arrested. Non-professionals – many of whom were members of the resistance movements – lend a documentary-like authenticity to the proceedings, with bright-red blood effects not unlike that of the giallo cinema reminding us that we’re watching a piece of fiction. Maldoror demonstrates keen understanding of the rise against oppression, and directs her social(ist) drama from the standpoint of a righteous poet, using local flavors of the music, and palpable textures of 16mm cinematography to set the atmosphere of freedom at hand, and portray the emotional landscape of a country and its people.

7. Sebastiane (Derek Jarman & Paul Humfress, 1976)

One of the boldest and most provocative feature debuts, ‘Sebastiane’ revels in amping up homoeroticism that is obvious in most, if not all of classic art representations of St. Sebastian’s martyrdom; its soul residing within the ecstatic, liberating act of subversion. Opening with an extravagant scene of orgiastic celebration comparable to the likes of Bene, Russell and Fellini in its lurid, anachronistic stylization, the film takes an ascetic, naturalistic turn after creating a (glory) hole in the fourth wall, and comes across as a Pasolini’s wet dream. Imbued with deep devotion, this Latin-spoken apotheosis of male body and gay desire blurs the line between spirituality and soft-core pornography, emerging more consecrated than the great majority of cine-hagiographies.

8. Kärlek 65 / Love 65 (Bo Widerberg, 1965)

Godard meets Antonioni in a reserved drama that refuses to be Bergmanesque, giving off slight ‘8 ½’ vibes, and anticipating New Hollywood naturalism at certain points in the story of a film director suffering creative block and facing a marriage crisis. Most of the characters are named after the (superb!) cast, with a few kite-lifting scenes channeling their desire to break away from the hold of cinema, or is it reality they’re all trying to escape? 

Thematizing love, lies and lust for life, Widerberg goes as far as to involve his own daughter Nina – one of the sweetest child actors ever captured on the big screen – to conjure up the mystery of his personal inner workings, and edits it into a fragmented self-portrait with proto-remodernist details. It may appear cold, but it is visually entrancing, with three cinematographers operating as one, and framing the (broken) state of things in starkly beautiful B&W.

9. Akame shijuya taki shinju misui / Akame 48 Waterfalls (Genjiro Arato, 2003)

Consistent in its hermeticism and almost otherworldly in its eccentricity, ‘Akame 48 Waterfalls’ felt like an arduous journey through a cinematic limbo towards a goal (enlightenment?) that can’t be put into words. It may be the cultural and spiritual differences, but this arthouse drama – the second of three features helmed by the producer of Seijun Suzuki’s ‘Taishō Trilogy’ – left me completely defenseless and mystified, stuck in a cognitive or rather, soul-searching haze...

10. Les félins / Joy House (René Clément, 1964)

Alain Delon, Lola Albright and Jane Fonda star in a pulpy thriller set in French riviera, with an old mansion built in Neo-Gothic style treated as a hub of fishy goings on, as well as a character in its own right. A petty gigolo on the run, a bereaved widow and her flirty young cousin get entangled in a love triangle without any actual love involved, each one of them driven by their own agendas. Not to be taken seriously, ‘Joy House’ is one of those tongue-in-cheek flicks that effortlessly bridge the gap between art and entertainment, and turn out to be a perfect viewing choice for a hot summer evening, seducing you with the great synergy of its attractive cast, groovy jazz score and slick B&W visuals. 

11. Et Dieu… créa la femme / ... And God Created Woman (Roger Vadim, 1956)

Sexual revolution starts a decade earlier in Roger Vadim’s radiant directorial debut – a breezy pre-New Wave drama – that makes it easy to imagine Brigitte Bardot as Liberty in some erotic, pop-art-esque re-imagination of Delacroix’s famous painting. She is the embodiment of seductiveness in the role of a free-spirited hussy, Juliete, with three Romeos played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, Christian Marquand and Curd Jürgens (all of them superb, yet under the influence of Ms. Bardot’s magnetism) vying for her affection. In a way, the film anticipates the camp glory of ‘Barbarella’, finding perfect matches for its star’s sex appeal in St. Tropez summer setting – a fascinating character in its own right, as well as in Paul Misraki’s energizing score, and bold colors of Armand Thirard’s handsome cinematography. 

12. Golgo 13 (Jun’ya Satō, 1973)

Ken Takakura epitomizes sheer coolness as a mysterious and reticent assassin Golgo 13 in the eponymous 1973 Iranian-Japanese co-production that makes brilliant use of locations, from Tehran of the time to ancient ruins of Isfahan, suffering slight pacing issues...