Mar 1, 2021

Best Premiere Viewings of February

Half of 50 films I watched during February gets a mention on the latest monthly listicle.

FEATURES

1. Záhrada / The Garden (Martin Šulík, 1995)


“Finally all is the way it ought to be.”

Concluding on a very Tarkovskian note – and that’s not a spoiler, because you’ll see a loving homage to the ‘Mirror’ levitation scene on the film’s poster – The Garden is a prime example of both magical realism and poetic cinema delicately laced with absurd humor. Divided in fourteen novel-like chapters announced by an unknown narrator, it revolves around a man-child teacher, Jakub (Roman Luknár, brilliant), who moves or rather, escapes from his father’s flat (and a relationship with a married woman) to his late grandfather’s old, decrepit house in the countryside where a series of odd encounters changes his views on life. Firstly, he discovers his gramps’ diary that has to be read with a mirror, then he meets a mysterious girl, Helena (Zuzana Sulajová, veiled in an angelic aura), who has a way with animals, and in the following days of warm early autumn, his newfound idyll is interrupted by St. Benedict, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Ludwig Wittgenstein... or at least, some trio of wisecrackers. As his garden of earthly delights – an apple orchard, to be precise, because of its heavy symbolism – transforms into a gonzo-paradise of pure emotions, we are reminded that great beauty is often contained within small, ostensibly inessential things. And sometimes, such a simple truth is most refreshing.

2. Hikaru Onna / A Luminous Woman (Shinji Sōmai, 1987)


To call Luminous Woman an oddity would be a huge understatement, given that it simultaneously evokes comparisons to Bloodsport (yes, the very B actioner starring JCVD!), and the experimental work of Shūji Terayama, and not to mention that it was penned by Yōzō Tanaka who also wrote Seijun Suzuki’s (highly recommended!) Taishō Roman Trilogy.

Chronicling an off-kilter love story of a burly highlander, Sensaku (pro-wrestler Keiji Mutō who portrays the character with imposing physicality, great bravado and childlike innocence), the film pulls the viewer into a bizarre world of the Tokyo underground where no-rules fighting matches have opera singers, circus acrobats, drag queens and classical ballet dancers performing as sideshow attractions. The reason for our hero’s arrival from Hokkaido to Japan’s capital is his beloved, Kuriko, who had previously come for studies and stayed for nightlife, but fate has other plans for him, and they involve a melancholic beauty, Yoshino, who owns a glass-breaking soprano (the superb debut for magnetic singer-songwriter Michiru Akiyoshi).

In someone else’s hands, Sensaku’s ‘big city adventure’ might’ve turned into a conventional melodrama, but Shinji Sōmai firmly embraces its quirks, and in addition demonstrates a distinctive visual flair, employing eye-catching purple filter to establish a sultry, oneiric atmosphere, as well as distorted angles and playful camera movements during numerous continuous takes to enhance it. During one particularly memorable (and very Suzuki-like) scene involving a telephone conversation between Kuriko and Yoshino, he creates an illusion of set / space dissolving before our eyes, with actresses gliding in and out of the frame. Marrying fiery reds to moody blues that threaten to pop out of the screen, he intensifies the already strong ‘violetness’ of his imagery, until the pastoral epilogue that removes this phantasmagorical patina.

3. L’extraordinaire voyage de Marona / Marona’s Fantastic Tale (Anca Damian, 2019)


They say that canines are color-blind, yet this bittersweet tale told from the perspective of a female mongrel makes the viewer intoxicated with its dizzying colorfulness and ever-changing palettes. Gently reflecting on loss, loneliness, transience, as well as humaneness and joy exuding from all the precious moments we experience during our time on earth, Marona’s Fantastic Tale has its title justified in every single frame of distorted perspectives and transmogrifying shapes, not unlike György Kovásznai’s 1980 animated comedy Habfürdö. Appearing as a series of most phantasmagorical Fauvist paintings coming to life, it constantly reinvents itself, and unfolds as an intricate visual tapestry interwoven with the silky threads of a dreamy art-pop score featuring the voice of Swedish-born, Paris-based singer, composer and improviser Isabel Sörling. If you are a dog person or an experimental animation aficionado (preferably both), this charming little film will certainly conquer your heart.

4. The Burial of Kojo (Blitz Bazawule, 2018)


Shot in Ghana on a micro-budget, Blitz Bazawule’s little gem of a feature debut is brimful of stunningly framed imagery tucked into an eclectic, stream-of-consciousness score composed by the director himself. Unfurling like a vivid dream, The Burial of Kojo has a big, gentle heart beating under its highly poetic tableaux vivants, and it belongs to a young woman who fondly reminisces her late father. Set in both real and spiritual world invaded by a mysterious crow figure, as well as on their blurred borderline, the film feels like a magical / surreal, melancholy-infused journey across the vast waters of childhood.

5. Jiang Ziya / Legend of Deification (Teng Cheng & Li Wei, 2020)


Once again, Chinese animators draw inspiration from the rich mythology of their homeland, delivering an epic, visually dazzling piece of CGI cinema – a compromise between high and dark fantasy replete with gravity-defying action that sees gods, demigods and demons face off in fierce duels. Transcendentally spectacular, Legend of Deification opens with a gorgeous, traditionally animated prologue and boasts a stunning color palette of icy blues (of Beihai), blazing reds (of the big bad nine-tailed fox, in one of her most fearsome incarnations), velvety indigo tones (of the night and stone forest), and sunny oranges and yellows (in the desert and at Ruins of Return, during the reincarnation scene).

In stark contrast, the titular hero Jiang Ziya – designed as a Keanu Reeves look-alike (but please, Hollywood, don’t even consider a remake) – is dressed in earthy grays that correspond well with his modest character and composure. Together with an adorable mini-dragon that later transforms into a Miyazaki-esque stag and a mysterious girl who’s bound to the abovementioned fox spirit, he runs into many obstacles on a redeeming adventure, forced to choose between saving an innocent or destroying one life for the greater good. It is, no doubt, a familiar / archetypal story, but it is presented in such a marvelous fashion that you simply surrender to the overwhelming power of eye-candy.

6. Blanche comme neige / Pure as Snow (Anne Fontaine, 2019)


Fully in command of every single frame she graces with her presence, Isabelle Huppert brings the inimitable composure, as well as a wide range of trademark micro-expressions and impenetrable glances that speak several languages to the role of the wicked stepmother, Maud, in Anne Fontaine’s naughty modern take on the Grimm Brothers’ most adapted (and my personal favorite) fairy tale. And when she is out of the picture, so to say, utterly magnetic Lou de Laâge as Claire (i.e. this version’s very own Snow White), seduces seven suitors and the viewer not only with her gorgeous looks, but also with an intoxicating aura of overwhelming daintiness, burgeoning desirability and youthful energy, as her heroine – surrounded by an aura of innermost light – explores the newly discovered lust for life.

At turns dark and funny, innocent and sexy, mysterious and mundane, slyly highbrow and deliciously campy, Pure as Snow interweaves the age-old themes of vanity and jealousy with that of female sexuality and liberation, subtly reconfiguring the original story for the post-feminist times. Fontaine’s playful and to a certain degree quirky direction with occasional winks to Breillat, De Palma and Ozon finds a perfect match in Yves Angelo’s striking cinematography which beautifully captures the crimson reds of Maud’s garments and perpetuates breathtakingly verdant vistas surrounding a cozy, inviting mountain town whose men fall under Claire’s spell. As they make love to her, some literally, others through soothing conversation (biker priest) or sensual Bach-playing (hypochondriac cellist), their weaknesses emerge to the surface in quite sympathetic ways, making the girl of their dreams even more ethereal.

7. Night Has Come (Peter van Goethem, 2019)


“Maybe everything is about to be lost... Maybe everything will begin again.”

Ruminating on the fragility, variability and volatility of human memories, Peter van Goethem makes a confident (and exceptionally glum) debut composed entirely of found footage – the courtesy of the Royal Belgian Film Archive – that beautifully and, in a way, tragically corresponds with the theme of memory-erasing virus dubbed ‘The Night’. Children playing on the beach, a couple strolling through the forest, men involved in destructive riots, a surgical intervention on the brain, a rumble through the rubbles of a bombed city... Are those the scenes from the (unreliable) narrator’s past or some half-remembered dreams implanted during the government’s experiments? No clear answers are provided in this hypnotic tone poem / lyrical essay, and vagueness is the glue that holds seemingly unrelated imagery together, as the viewer “drifts in and out of consciousness” (in the words of Chris Evangelista for Slashfilm). But one thing is clear – the end is inevitable, no matter how hard we try to resist it.

Two perfect companion pieces for Night Has Come are Jóhann Jóhannsson’s wonderful swan song Last and First Men and Salvatore Insana’s I Stared Fire Forever – the Grand Prix awardee at the second edition of Kinoskop.

8. The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (Vincent Ward, 1988)


Told from the perspective of a clairvoyant boy, Griffin, The Navigator follows a band of five villagers on a larger-than-life or rather, ‘test of faith’ adventure that takes them – through an underground tunnel – from the 14th century England to the 20th century New Zealand, as they try to evade the Black Death. The spatiotemporal displacement is not employed for a comic effect, as it would be, let’s say, five years later in Les Visiteurs, but rather as a clever way of showing fantastical elements of the story without resorting to special effects. Vincent Ward’s taut direction, Davood A. Tabrizi’s evocative score permeated with Gregorian chants, and Geoffrey Simpson’s expressive, painterly cinematography of B&W splendor (for the Medieval age) and deep colors (in the scenes that take place in the present) are the film’s major strengths.

9. Ventajas de viajar en tren / Advantages of Travelling by Train (Aritz Moreno, 2019)


Structured as a possessed Matryoshka doll and adapted for the screen by Javier Gullón (of Villeneuve’s Enemy fame), a twisted, surprising, daringly surrealist story in Advantages of Travelling by Train is recounted from the perspective of a few unreliable (and brilliantly acted!) narrators who take you to some pretty dark places stained by madness or pure evil, and ‘illuminated’ with spots of black humor. Beneath the baroque veneer of saturated colors popping out of stylishly framed shots submerged in haunting soundscapes, lie acrid social commentary and self-ironizing contemplation on the artifice of cinema and, generally speaking, art. A very promising feature debut for Moreno!

10. The Night (Kourosh Ahari, 2020)


Dark secrets and troubled conscience of ‘freshly baked’ parents, Babak and Neda (gripping performances by Shahab Hosseini and Niousha Noor), come to ghostly life during the night spent in a ‘haunted’ hotel. Never lifting the veil of mystery completely, Kourosh Ahari takes cues from Kubrick’s rendition of The Shining, J-horror atmospherics and Lynch’s mind games to deliver some genuine, goosebump-inducing scares in his first venture into psychological horror. The hair-raising sensation is underscored by Maz Makhani’s shadow-drenched cinematography and Nima Fahkrara’s skin-crawling score, whereby a loving homage to Magritte’s 1937 painting Not to Be Reproduced plays a heavily symbolic role.

11. Jedini izlaz / The Only Way Out (Darko Nikolić, 2021) 


I must admit that the great majority of recent Serbian films lose me at hello, but I was very curious to see The Only Way Out (which is the name of a fictitious cafe, btw) for two reasons – it is a thriller (genre offerings are extremely rare beasts around these parts), and it is starred by an actress famous for comedic roles (Anđelka Prpić, whose micro-expressions lend gravitas to numerous close-ups). And I’m happy that I checked it out on the big screen, because it was my first visit to cinema after a year or so, not to mention that I could fully enjoy the stylish cinematography by Miljan Milovanović – the memorable imagery captured by his camera wouldn’t feel out of place in a Spanish or Scandinavian productions that seem to both the director and the writer (Marko Popović) main sources of inspiration. By no means a groundbreaker, The Only Way Out provided me with an enjoyable viewing experience, so I will be looking forward to seeing what Nikolić has in store next.

12. La decima vittima / The 10th Victim (Elio Petri, 1965)


Both dressed and in the state of undress (as in the unforgettable killer-bra scene), Ursula Andress is utterly magnetic and appears to have a whale of a time in Elio Petri’s decidedly campy sci-fi satire turned romantic comedy peppered with dark humor and spy movie-like action. Her partner – bleached Marcello Mastroianni – amps his nonchalance up to eleven to play the role of the titular 10th victim in a reality show game of cat and mouse that supposedly satisfies violent urges and prevents wars sometime in the 21st century. And while the two of them engage in the ‘gladiatorial’ sport of outwitting each other, we are treated to in-vogue pop-art visuals of garish colors, and irresistibly groovy, oh-so-60s score that succeed in diverting the viewer’s attention from a few plodding parts of the story. 

13. Mazeppa (Bartabas, 1993)


In his directorial debut, horse trainer Bartabas borrows motifs from the Ukrainian legend of Ivan Mazeppa and Lord Byron’s narrative poem inspired by it to show & tell a fictionalized or rather, ‘surrealized’ account on the French painter and lithographer Théodore Géricault. Heavily influenced by Peter Greenaway, he pulls the viewer into a bizarre, oft-grotesque, darkly sensual, occasionally visceral and psychologically intense world of circus acrobats whose breathtaking equestrian show is knowingly integrated into a bleak, unnerving story. The film’s increasingly stifling atmosphere imperceptibly puts us in the artist’s shoes, providing us with a not-so-pleasant experience of sliding down the spiral of lunacy.

Fine mares and steeds populate the screen with utmost elegance, whether they work as entertainers, together with their ‘masters’, or copulate before a group of children with Down syndrome, all following a shockingly naturalistic prologue of horse meat being processed. Bartabas holds the reins firmly, eliciting excellent performances from both beautiful animals and his ensemble cast, jumping into the role of a cruel, mysterious, leather mask-wearing ringmaster Franconi, and focusing on visuals and motion with more zeal than certain professional filmmakers. Assisted by DoP Bernard Zitzermann and Emile Ghigo’s impeccable art direction, he boasts a keen aesthetic sensibility, creating some elaborate tracking shots of mesmerizing power.

14. Le regine / Queens of Evil (Tonino Cervi, 1970)


In a bold deconstruction of the Goldilocks fairy tale, a young hippie biker (Ray Lovelock, who also lends his vocals for a couple of songs on the soundtrack) falls under the spell of three gorgeous sisters (Haydée Politoff as Liv, Silvia Monti as Samantha and Evelyn Stewart as Bibiana), after fleeing from the scene of car accident in which an eccentric and preachy rich man (Gianni Santuccio) gets killed. It goes without saying that the latter is a Mephistophelian figure, whereby the siblings who live in a rural cottage deep in a forest have a decidedly witchy air about them, which posits the story firmly in the realm of an increasingly dark fantasy laced with horror elements. But instead of taking a highly exploitative direction as one may expect from a ‘man vs. three women’ situation, Tonino Cervi blends soft, tasteful eroticism with a mysterious mood in his thought-provoking exploration of (non)conformism, gender and class clash, bourgeois envy and vanity, as well as of the dire consequences of betraying one’s own ideals. Assisted by the exquisite costume and production design of, respectively, flowery power and pop art splendor, beautiful cinematography by Sergio D’Offizi, and dreamy score by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, he provides a rather stylish package for his cautionary story.

15. The Wild One (László Benedek, 1953)


The classic ‘rule of cool’ cinema at its cheekiest.

SHORTS

1. Death of the Gorilla (Peter Mays, 1966)


Tarzan on speed dreams of King Kong being disintegrated through seven dimensions of cinema in a ritual conducted by Kenneth Anger’s astral projection. An incessant and relentless assault of multiple, frenetically edited superimpositions pull you in a whirlwind of kaleidoscopic euphoria and spin you across the liquid field of your subconscious mind. What a fantabulous experiment!

2. Duotone (Alexander Isaenko & Yanina Boldyreva, 2012)


The stark and unnerving symbiosis between dizzying montage, multiple superimpositions and uncanny sonic emanations transform naked human bodies (Denis Alemaev & Evgenia Pechen) into ghostly apparitions trapped in a dissolving liminal space, as Isaenko and Boldryeva explore the duality of human nature, blurring or completely erasing the boundaries between internal and external spaces / feminine and masculine aspects of one’s persona(lity). Their hectic, paranoid, hallucinatory visuals appear as reflections of innermost feelings or extreme mental states, washing over the viewer with great intensity. The oppressive atmosphere of metaphysical uncertainty is amplified by Alexey Borisov’s otherworldly score. 

3. The Rabbit Hunters (Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson & Galen Johnson, 2020)


Guy Maddin’s latest short stars Isabella Rossellini as maestro Federico Fellini falling deeper into a peculiar dream within a dream that feels like an appendix to The Forbidden Room – for versed cinephiles, nuff said.

4. Visa de censure n°X (Pierre Clémenti, 1967)


Pierre Clémenti and co. get naked in a happy, pseudo-occult hippy trip turned cinematic experiment which dazzles and delights with both its aural and visual space-psychedelics, and has credits appearing halfway through the film. Very much a product of its time, this groovy counterculture phantasmagoria must’ve been shot with the entire team high on acid, as the official synopsis suggests. The white rabbit approves the fall down the hole of lucid reveries.

5. A Visit from the Incubus (Anna Biller, 2001)


Dominated by eye-piercing reds, bold and bright colors of wonderful DIY sets and costumes rule in Anna Biller’s delightfully campy western fantasy that serves female empowerment as the main dish. You can watch it as a part of Anna Biller: The Short Film Collection at Vimeo on Demand.

6. Le château du tarot (Matteo Garrone, 2021)


Several Major Arcana characters come to (feminine) life in the second collaboration between Christian Dior fashion house and Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone, with the former’s lavish garments and the latter’s keen sense of fantasy magically matched. Almost wordless, The Castle of Tarot traces an enchanting journey of self-discovery, marrying baroquely beautiful visuals to a delicate, euphonious score...

7. Unmistaken Hands: Ex Voto F.H. (Stephen & Timothy Quay, 2013)


Borrowing motifs from the work of Uruguayan magic realist writer Felisberto Hernández, the Quay Brothers pose a tricky formal challenge in this gloomy, ethereal, slow-burn mystery that is best described as a stop-motion equivalent of an Alexander Sokurov’s film. Soaked in deep shadows or blinding light, their bizarre, borderline creepy puppets and meticulously designed sets suggesting dust and decay are poetically or rather, oneirically captured in a gauzy cinematography subtly accompanied by a haunting score, whispery voice-overs and cicadas’ soporific crepitation. 

8. That Elusive Balance (Salvatore Insana, 2021)


Suggesting that the search for happiness is nothing but the search for balance, Salvatore Insana employs home videos from the library of one of the most loathed historical figures (code: Eva Braun), and subverts them through ‘flickery’ editing (impossible to capture in stills) and distorted classical music. The twisted marriage of smiling faces and irregular rhythms simultaneously amuse and perturb, throw you off balance and make you daydream 24 frames per second. A bold and powerful anti-fascist provocation.

9. Moods Clairvoyant I (Sebastián Jiménez Galindo & Time Viewers, 2021)


Oneiric soundscapes and the immersive, high-contrast B&W imagery prove to be a sturdy support for a contemplative poem passionately recited by David Stobbe, and occasioanlly evoking Borges’ writings.

“My reflection comes and goes
outside of itself
as if in a hurry to be born.”

10. Green Thoughts (William Hong-Xiao Wei, 2020)


A tender, dreamy, highly sensorial, if slightly overlong romance heavily influenced by Alexander Sokurov’s blurred and distorted visuals. 

Honorable mention: German mini-series Hausen (Thomas Stuber, 2020) (read my review HERE).

Feb 21, 2021

Pure as Snow (Anne Fontaine, 2019)

Fully in command of every single frame she graces with her presence, Isabelle Huppert brings the inimitable composure, as well as a wide range of trademark micro-expressions and impenetrable glances that speak several languages to the role of the wicked stepmother, Maud, in Anne Fontaine’s naughty modern take on the Grimm Brothers’ most adapted (and my personal favorite) fairy tale. And when she is out of the picture, so to say, utterly magnetic Lou de Laâge as Claire (i.e. this version’s very own Snow White), seduces seven suitors and the viewer not only with her gorgeous looks, but also with an intoxicating aura of overwhelming daintiness, burgeoning desirability and youthful energy, as her heroine – surrounded by an aura of innermost light – explores the newly discovered lust for life.

At turns dark and funny, innocent and sexy, mysterious and mundane, slyly highbrow and deliciously campy, Pure as Snow interweaves the age-old themes of vanity and jealousy with that of female sexuality and liberation, subtly reconfiguring the original story for the post-feminist times. Fontaine’s playful and to a certain degree quirky direction with occasional winks to Breillat, De Palma and Ozon finds a perfect match in Yves Angelo’s striking cinematography which beautifully captures the crimson reds of Maud’s garments and perpetuates breathtakingly verdant vistas surrounding a cozy, inviting mountain town whose men fall under Claire’s spell. As they make love to her, some literally, others through soothing conversation (biker priest) or sensual Bach-playing (hypochondriac cellist), their weaknesses emerge to the surface in quite sympathetic ways, making the girl of their dreams even more ethereal.

Feb 19, 2021

Hausen (Thomas Stuber, 2020)

A very human type of deviousness gets an uncanny cosmic boost in an 8-part mini-series Hausen co-written by Till Kleinert of Der Samurai fame and Anna Stoeva whose previous credits include production of several documentaries. Set in a Plattenbau complex - a concrete colossus straight out of a Brutalist hell, it focuses on the dreary existence of its eccentric residents some of whom are addicted to a strange substance extracted from a black ooze that clogs the worn-out pipework. The arrival of a new caretaker, Jaschek (Charly Hübner, playing the role with imposing physicality), and his son Juri (Tristan Göbel, channeling teen angst with sulking conviction), paradoxically accelerates the erosion of both the decaying building and already frail community.

The monolithic skyscraper of a labyrinthine interior where the bulk of the puzzling story takes place is turned into a malicious character linked with a presumably alien entity in a symbiotic relationship. Feeding on fears and suffering of its 'inmates', this highly claustrophobic prison of impossible architecture (The Shining influence, no doubt) seems to be detached from the reality of the outside world which is only sparsely referenced to or glimpsed at - it follows its own whims and (twisted) logic, as it leads the weakened tenants down the path of madness and violence. Such an oppressive environment proves to be a fertile ground for mind games played not only against the protagonists, but vs. the viewer as well, with a bleak, pre-apocalyptic atmosphere increasingly thickening towards a Space Odyssey-inspired conclusion. Speaking of inspiration, Kleinert, Stoeva and Stuber take cues from diverse sources (Lovecraft, Giger, Lynch, J-horror, just to name a few), and yet all of the familiar elements fit so well together, pulling us deep into a whole new universe.

The authors stubbornly refuse to provide answers to the great majority of constantly raising questions, peeling only the most superficial layers of mystery and thus letting the darkness and dread (of the unknown) creep under your skin and then cloak you completely. Although they do touch upon numerous real-life problems, such as drug abuse, depression, pedophilia, neo-Nazism, domestic neglect and institutionalized corruption, they manage to escape the trap of pronounced metaphorization which plagues many recent genre offerings, allowing the very cinematic qualities to shine through. Stefanie Kromrei's flawless art direction and Peter Matjasko's moody cinematography of cold, desaturated colors and dim, often flickering lighting wonderfully emphasize the bizarreness and obscurity of the proceedings, wrapping the series in the appropriately and attractively tenebrous images. Long hallways defined by decrepit walls, apartments that have seen better days, and a vast, dampy basement - an industrial jungle of electrical and heating installations - all come with a strong visual identity, as well as a (putrid) life of their own, making Hausen an equivalent of a vivid nightmare. What elevates this nightmare to the next sensorial / experiential level are a haunting score by David Chalmin and Bryce Dessner, and an imposing sound design by Kai Tebbel who enhances every whisper, buzz and hum to bone-chilling effect.

Feb 1, 2021

Best Premiere Viewings of January 2021

31 collages, 42 features and 85 shorts into what seems to be turning into another year of unrest, I present two lists of my favorite January films, both of which are arranged chrono-alphabetically.

FEATURES

1. The Golden Fern (Jirí Weiss, 1963)

“An aristocratic favour can only lead to blood.”

Opening with a wordless eight-minute sequence – a masterclass in setting the thick atmosphere of mystery and enchantment – The Golden Fern is one of the most (visually) poetic fairy tale adaptations since Jean Cocteau’s rendition of Beauty and the Beast (1946). A cautionary fable that warns against macho-egotism, it plays out as an uncommon combination of a gothic fantasy with slight horror undertones, and a war drama which introduces a poisonous romance between an atypical hero, Jura (Vit Olmer, charmingly repulsive as a conceited shepherd turned soldier), and General’s seductive snake of a daughter (Daniela Smutná’s bravura portrayal).

Progressively dark and harrowing, the film puts a powerful spell on the viewer even though the magical aspects of its story get completely mired in the mud of many human weaknesses – and Weiss doesn’t make any compromises. Working along him are composer Jiří Srnka best known for his brooding score for Otakar Vávra’s masterpiece Witchhammer (1970), and Bedrich Batka who makes a mighty impressive debut as a director of photography and will later collaborate with František Vláčil on drop dead gorgeous Marketa Lazarová (1967). The enthralling B&W imagery never loosens its grip, particularly during the vertiginous dancing scene, and in a plethora of expressive close-ups.

2. The White Moor (Ion Popescu-Gopo, 1965)


Not only one of the most colorful Romanian films that I’ve ever seen, The White Moor is also one of the grooviest fairy tales captured on a celluloid tape! Paired with twisted, jester-like humor, the garish tones of Eastmancolor radiate from over-the-top costumes and kitschy, playground-esque sets decorated with plastic flowers and fake gold. At one point, you feel that you got lost and stumbled across a supporting act for a drag queen cabaret, and the next thing you know, a trio of henchmen who look like S&M fantasy versions of medieval executioners performs a chamber piece for piano, cello and vocal in a sorcerer’s dungeon. And the film’s many eccentricities which act as its driving force do not end there – a provocative encounter between a young prince and a bad guy is unexpectedly naughty for a piece of cinema made behind the Iron Curtain...

3. Face to Face (Roviros Manthoulis, 1966)


Godardian in its tricky, jump-cutty form, and Buñuelian in its mocking attitude towards nouveau riche bourgeoisie, Face to Face revolves around a poor English teacher, Dimitris, who gets ensnared in a sticky web of sexual desire, moral decline and spatio-temporal illusions, after being hired to tutor Varvara – a pampered daughter of a wealthy family. The film’s boldly fragmented narrative which ends (decidedly?) abruptly is skillfully matched to a seductive blend of wry humor, socio-political commentary and playfully engaging visuals. 

4. Invasión (Hugo Santiago, 1969)


Based on a story by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares which was adapted by Borges himself and then first-time director Hugo Santiago (who narrated Raúl Ruiz’s Three Crowns of the Sailor in 1983), Invasion plays out like a formally rigorous political thriller of a decidedly ambiguous narrative, cipher-like characters, and dense, oppressive atmosphere almost evoking a sense of cosmic dread. Its stark, bleakly beautiful B&W cinematography, bold editing choices, and uncanny soundscapes of pounding footsteps and bizarre (bird?) screeching that pierce the foreboding silence give off some strong Nouvelle Vague (and even Yugoslav Black Wave) vibes, putting the viewer in a state of paralyzing paranoia.

5. King of the Reindeer (Павел Арсенов, 1970)

In one of the formally boldest fairy tale musicals of (Soviet) cinema, magic lies within the absence of magic, illusion emerges from the decidedly anti-illusionary tactics, and bizarre ‘filmicity’ is rooted in theatrical shenanigans. Frequent breaking of the fourth wall, Arsenov’s self-ironizing meta-approach to storytelling, as well as the deliberate, puppet play-like artificiality of sets and incredibly playful extravagance of costumes are some of the film’s strongest traits. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have gorgeous Valentina Malyavina of Ivan’s Childhood fame jumping into the role of the titular king’s love interest.

6. Pavle Pavlović (Mladomir ‘Puriša’ Đorđević, 1975)

Starring (and co-starring) who’s who of ex-YU thespian scene, with both Bekim Fehmiu (I Even Met Happy Gypsies) and Milena Dravić (W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism) unforgettable in their leading roles, Pavle Pavlović is a biting, yet sophisticated social satire which hasn’t lost any of its relevance – banana republics of Balkan have mutated only superficially. Similarly to Đorđević’s masterful war tetralogy (The Girl, The Dream, The Morning, Noon), it blurs the boundaries between poetry and pamphlet, dissolving reality in a half-dream, part Godardian and part Antonioni-esque.

7. Beasts (Živko Nikolić, 1977)

A paragon of fever dream cinema, Beasts brings together Kafkaesque futility, Buñuelian irrationality and Felliniesque ‘circus’ in its boldly surreal, aesthetically refined and stubbornly equivocal portrayal of a moral, mental and spiritual degeneration amidst which Beauty – both a Secret and the ultimate Truth – is sought to be degraded and ultimately, destroyed. The darkest of human desires and most animalistic of urges emerge to the surface, turning the authentic characters into grotesque archetypes, and leaving the viewer defenseless in the disfigured face of their innermost evil. And when the night is gone, the only possibility seems to be the illusion of light...

8. Háry János (Zsolt Richly, 1983)


Based on Zoltán Kodály’s folk opera of the same name which is the adaptation of János Garay’s comic epic The Vetaran (Az obsitos), Háry János follows (hyperbolized) heroic exploits of the titular protagonist. A simple peasant, János, reluctantly becomes a hussar in the Austrian army, conquers the heart of the Empress Marie Louise and single-handedly defeats Napoleon and his army (slicing through their cannons like paper), only to renounce all the riches, returning to his village and beloved Örzse. His wild, Baron Munchausen-esque imagination and mythopoetic irreverence toward historical facts are just perfectly translated into vivid, eye-popping animation directed by none other than the brilliant graphic artist Marcell Jakovics (Son of the White Mare, The Tragedy of Man). Virtually every frame bursts with dazzling color schemes, incessantly transmogrifying shapes, and surrealistic distortions of perspective which – often combined into psychedelic and/or gloriously symmetrical compositions – beautifully complement Kodály’s zestful, energizing score. They really don’t make them like this anymore!

9. Pink Ulysses (Eric de Kuyper, 1990)


Taking cues from Mizer’s beefcake photos, and offerings by the likes of Pasolini, Schroeter, Bidgood and Jarman, Flemish-Belgian and Dutch writer, semiologist, art critic and film director Eric de Kuyper loosely adapts the Odysseus myth into a formally daring, decidedly artificial experimental feature centered around the theme of homoeroticism. As Penelope waits for her beloved’s return to Ithaca, her home draped in many warmly hued layers of fabric, the hero’s adventure is broken into a series of sthenolagnia-inspired vignettes some of which presumably represent his visions. Glued with the cleverly inserted found footage – including, inter alia, the hammock sequence from Battleship Potemkin – these often anachronistic ‘sketches’ betray the author’s keen eye for striking visual composition, as well as his penchant for amped-up melodramatics reflected in his obsession with classical music and vintage ballads. De Kuyper’s intention is, apparently, not to retell the legend, but rather to explore the cinema’s painterly potentials, unapologetically objectifying the male body.

10. Luminous Motion (Bette Gordon, 1998)


(click HERE to read the review)

11. Babaouo (Manuel Cussó-Ferrer, 2000)


A burning giraffe, cyclists wearing veils attached to bread loafs, and a cellist performing with his right foot in a washbowl are just a few signifiers that remind us we are situated deep within a surreal domain. And this one belongs to none other than the mad genius Salvador Dalí who wrote the script for Babaouo in 1932, but didn’t find the means to turn it into a piece of cinema. Although not nearly as imaginative as the well-known Spanish painter, Manuel Cussó-Ferrer delivers a frolicsome flick (not even 70 minutes in length) that opens with a short documentary, and then takes a sharp turn into a romantic dramedy whose straightforward narrative gets twisted by the logic of the irrational.

12. Have You Another Apple? (Bayram Fazli, 2006)


Part post-apocalyptic ‘fairy tale’ and part surrealist comedy, the visually captivating directorial feature debut by Iranian cinematographer Bayram Fazli is a bold allegory of (clero-fascist?) oppression and Sisyphean futility. Set in an unspecified / mythical Middle-Eastern land in which the villages of sleepers, brawlers, beggars, and ‘yellow bellies’ are all in a desperate need off a wake up call, Have You Another Apple? has its obscure narrative impregnated with symbolism and absurd humor. Its unconventional hero (Zabih Afshar, hilariously good) – a shave-headed fool caring only for food – is guided by a prudent woman (Leila Moosavi, great in embodying the voice of reason) whom he accidentally meets during his aimless wanderings. Together, they stand against the cunning, black-clad ‘sickle bearers’ whose despotic rule is best reflected in one of the film’s most memorable images – a fortified cemetery where people are buried alive up to their heads.

13. Split (Deborah Kampmeier, 2016)


Not to be confused with M. Night Shyamalan’s movie of the same name (and from the same year), Deborah Kampmeier’s Split is a cinematic equivalent of a scorned woman’s primordial scream – raw and loud. It is also a poignant story of a young go-go dancer’s falling in love (with a handsome and troubled mask maker) which parallels her falling apart, only to become whole again by virtue of an avant-garde theatre adaptation of the Inanna myth. Coincidentally, the fragile heroine shares the name with the said Sumerian goddess, and the aura of mystery she’s surrounded with suggests the fantastical at play, so her path of self-acceptance and independence overlaps with the fine line between art and reality / reality and dream.

Although bluntly feminist in tone, this surreal drama is not a misandric tirade – on the contrary, it depicts both Inanna and her beloved Derek (Amy Ferguson and Morgan Spector, equally great in their baring-it-all roles) as flawed human beings lugging the weight of darkness from their past. And it can not be blamed for its most assertively prosaic part – a rehearsal scene turned group therapy – because that deep cut into the meat of patriarchal society has to be felt stronger than the accumulated pain of women victimized through the centuries. Kampmeier’s provocations may seem overly confrontational and even heavy-handed, yet her keen sense of (imperfect) beauty – reflected in Alison Kelly’s crisp cinematography, Eloise Kazan’s neat production design and Leslie Graves’ haunting vocals on the soundtrack – lend this feature poetic gravitas.

14. The Kali Of Emergency (Ashish Avikunthak, 2016)


Featuring copious amounts of nudity which comes across as divinely, even innocently confrontational rather than titillating, this daring, challenging, bafflingly beautiful fantasy reflects on the chaos of modern society, thematizing political turmoil, sexual violence and family dynamics, all from a distanced, yet not indifferent perspective of Goddess Kali’s (lost and helpless?) avatars. Structured as a symbiotic hybrid of subversive performance acts and meta-filmic philosophical essay, The Kali Of Emergency ‘insists on an Indian epistemology while utilizing a rigorously formal visual language that is clearly aware of Western avant-garde practices’ (as noted in Art Review, 2014). Shot in grainy monochrome and color, on various locations in and around Kolkata, as well as in parts of Europe and the USA, it seduces you with its down-to-earth, yet powerful imagery enveloped in entrancing mantras...

15. Aragne: Sign of Vermillion (Saku Sakamoto, 2018)


Madness, WWII experiments, a secret cult, unresolved murders, giant bugs bursting from under the skin... It’s been a while since I last watched an anime as bizarre as Aragne: Sign of Vermillion, and what we have here at display is strangeness of the highest order. Written, directed and animated by Saku Sakamoto who also composed an eerily atmospheric music score, this increasingly surreal feature blends psychological and body horror rooted in entomophobia to strikingly nightmarish effect. Encapsulating logic in pupa stage, the author blurs or completely erases the boundaries between his heroine’s reality, dreams and hallucinations, as the story – pushed into the background in favor of stylish visuals – twists and turns into unexpected or rather, absurd directions. Considering that Aragne is essentially a one-man project created on shoestring budget, it’s easy to forgive the occasional jerkiness of animation, all the ‘tricks’ employed to disguise rough edges, and jarring seams in the combination of oft-sketchy 2D and flat 3D imagery. So, if you’re looking for a film-equivalent of a pre-apocalyptic fever dream, don’t look any further.

16. Atarrabi & Mikelats (Eugène Green, 2020)


The Devil admits he listens to rap music while working on his high-tech computer in Eugène Green’s latest offering – a Basque myth of two demigod brothers adapted into a modern version of a medieval morality play touting all the filmmaker’s trademarks, such as stripped-down aesthetics, wry, tongue-in-cheek humor and decidedly ‘wooden’ performances, with non-professional actors often speaking directly to the camera. Green’s rigid, uncompromising formalism is an acquired taste, to say the least, but there are a couple of must-see breather scenes halfway through the film, one of which is Witch’s Sabbath by way of Satan’s college fraternity-like protégés.

17. Aviva (Boaz Yakin, 2020)


(click HERE to read the review)

18. Hunted (Vincent Paronnaud, 2020)


Hunted is an exhilarating transmutation of Little Red Riding Hood into a visceral, handsomely shot survival/revenge thriller that doesn't shy away from wry/dark humor, and is not afraid to stray from the path, taking chances with eco-friendly magic realism and tongue-in-cheek bizareness. Call me crazy, but I recommend it double billed with Till Kleinert's debut feature Der Samurai, although they're different kinds of wolves...

19. Red Moon Tide (Lois Patiño, 2020)


(click HERE to read the review)

20. Some Southern Waters (Julian Baner, 2020)


Emulating the style of David Lynch in your feature debut is certainly a risky move, yet Julian Baner dares to draw it while planting his tongue in cheek, and the result is a quirky indie flick that commands the viewer’s attention even at its most (self-)parodic and decidedly incoherent.

Part phantasmagorical neo-noir and part absurd psycho-dramedy, Some Southern Waters recounts a fractured story of young, aimless musician Jon’s decent into the rabbit hole of grief and guilt, following the tragic loss of his girlfriend Mona. Her ‘re-appearance’ as a sideshow attraction, Anna the Mermaid, in a traveling carnival run by a creepy Italian opera aficionado pulls us ever-deeper into the Twilight Zone between the hero’s reality and (waking) nightmares, with the obligatory ‘who or what should we trust’ question ensuing. 

What makes the watching experience stimulating is Karim Dakkon’s crispy B&W cinematography of dense, all-consuming shadows which – coalescing with an eclectic soundtrack of indie rock energy, classical music forebodings and doo-wop nostalgia – enhance the film’s dream-logic irrationality. Also commendable are the well-rounded performances by the unknown, yet judiciously assembled cast, as well as Baner’s ambition, skillful genre-juggling, and creativity within the budgetary constraints.

(Available for free on Tubi TV.)

SHORTS
(click on the titles to read reviews or watch publicly available films)

1. The Liberation of Mannique Mechanique (Steven Arnold, 1967)
2. Maze (Eve McConnachie, 2016)
3. Planet (Bang Sangho, 2016)
4. Shadow (Pascal Greco, 2017)
5. Adieu Corpus! (Alexander Isaenko, 2018)
6. Emunah (Sang Hyoun Han, aka Domcake, 2018)
7. Nightmare (Matti Vesanen, 2018)
8. Rinse: Repeat (Shelly Kamiel, 2018)
9. Furnace of the Birds (Arsen Arzumanyan, 2019)
10. Kokosmos (Anna Radchenko, 2019)
11. I Bhfad as Amharc (Outro) (Jelena Perišić, 2020)
12. Ichiko Aoba – Porcelain (Kodai Kobayashi, 2020)
13. Malakout (Farnoosh Abedi, 2020)
14. Rest Mode (Louise Linsenbolz, 2020)
15. The Golden Mask (Atoosa Pour Hosseini, 2020)
16. The Journey (Axl Le, 2020)
17. There is, however, unspeakable (Marzieh Emadi & Sina Saadat, 2020)
18. Túath (Andrew Duggan, 2020)
19. Two Doves on a Painted Lake (Kalainithan Kalaichelvan, 2020)
20. You Are, I Am (Sibi Sekar, 2021)

Jan 22, 2021

Luminous Motion (Bette Gordon, 1998)

"Sometimes it's very hard to tell the difference between your conception of the world and the world's conception of you."

Surrounded by an aura of dreamy otherworldliness or rather, magnetic mysteriousness, Deborah Kara Unger portrays Margaret - a free-spirited hustler of a mom to a ten-year-old boy, Phillip (Eric Lloyd), whose cuteness is matched by his brainpower and interest for natural science, particularly chemistry, and exceeded by burgeoning psychopathy. Together, this 'chemotropic' duo travels across the States, swindling their way to make ends meet, until a small accident settles them in the modest home of a kind carpenter and hardware store owner nicknamed Pedro (Terry Kinney). A possibility of idyllic life is undermined by Philip's ever-growing Oedipal complex and the appearance of his father who may or may not be a figment of the kid's imagination...

Narrated from an unreliable perspective of a morally disoriented child (I know my memory's hopelessly flawed and entangled with my imagination, he says at the beginning), Luminous Motion initially appears like a happy-go-lucky road-movie about a couple of sympathetic crooks, only to take a dark turn into a weirdly comical and increasingly surreal psychological drama. Part off-kilter coming-of-age / becoming-of-offender story, and part wickedly poetic exploration of dysfunctional mother-son dynamics, the film sees Bette Gordon's directorial rapier pointed against the patriarchal oppression, with her central female character gradually sliding down the slope of despair. Applying archetypes to three men closest to Margaret - a wayward offspring, stable boyfriend and ex-husband - she keeps subverting their reality until the viewer loses track of when and where the twisted fairy tale comes into play, and what actually happened.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter that we're left bewildered by Gordon's mind-games, because she pulls us into a singular cinematic universe in which a highly atmospheric, predominantly trip-hoppy score composed by Lesley Barber finds a flawless counterpart in captivating imagery of saturated colors often popping out of the screen (many kudos to cinematographer Teodoro Maniaci, as well as to Lisa Albin and Paul Avery for slick production design and art direction, respectively). On top of that, the mesmerizing, hyper-stylized aesthetics go hand in hand with Phillip's distorted and to a certain extent, damaged picture of his childhood, making heavy themes easier to process, yet strangely poignant and illuminating.