Jun 30, 2017

Pop Meets the Void (William Cusick, 2015)

 ☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼
The sophomore feature for William Cusick (Welcome to Nowhere) sees him as a keen multi-hyphenate - a writer, director, editor, co-producer, co-composer and star of the (fragmented and non-linear) story about a struggling artist. While the premise is certainly not an original one, it is the unique execution that elevates the film above its counterparts. Four narrative threads, one of them being highly abstract, are tightly interwoven into a form- and genre-defying blend of deadpan dramedy, psychological fantasy and fourth-wall-breaking pseudo-documentary.

In the mind-bending prologue, we are introduced to a mysterious figure (Nick Bixby) trapped in a white, decrepit room surrounded by hundreds of glassy, floating octahedrons. Considering the symbolic meaning of the said Platonic solid, he (or rather, it?) could be the embodiment of our downbeat hero's psyche, his spiritual self or some sort of inner (and as we later find out, suicidal) deity. Whatever the case may be, this entity's sequences serve as the 'glue' that holds together dreams and/or (alternative) realities of the protagonist, Walter. But the thing is, it's hard to discern which of his three versions is 'the original'.

The best guess would be that the bearded, unkempt introvert whose demos are mostly private and self-confidence constantly undermined by the others is the one imagining his superstar DJ persona ready to retire from the showbiz, as well as his other, down-to-earth alter ego that is a white-collar worker stuck on a dead-end job and with a henpecking wife. Oft-imbued with bitter (self-)irony, their lines reflect the issues which Cusick as an independent filmmaker is, without any doubt, faced with and those autobiographical notes ring very true (especially if the viewer is a like-minded creative with gentle soul).

Speaking of notes, the score which complements the trippy visuals has a cool and breezy, or as Walter puts it, 'folky kinda krautrocky' feel to it that sets the right emotional tone. Slightly melancholic, it wonderfully encapsulates 'conflicting concepts of reality' envisioned as an artificial, yet fascinating mélange of live-action and CGI animation (kudos to both VFX expert Jonathan Weiss and cinematographer Bart Cortright). The surreal, distorted imagery of Walter's fancy is a step forward compared to Cusick's more experimental debut, so let's hope he provides us with more gleaming, 'acidic' eye-candy in the future.

For more info, visit www.popmeetsthevoid.com

Jun 29, 2017

Okja (Joon-ho Bong, 2017)

☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼
Armed with a penchant for caricatured and over-the-top characters, such as Jake Gyllenhaal’s ridiculously cartoonish TV presenter and self-proclaimed animal lover Johnny Wilcox, Joon-Ho Bong treads on all-too-familiar territory and delivers another entertaining, slightly off-kilter, occasionally poignant and technically superior film rife with "bold" on-the-nose moments which make it as subtle as the titular CGI creature of elephantine proportions in a crowded underground mall. 

Jun 28, 2017

The Whispering Star (Sion Sono, 2015)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼

Sono's wife Megumi Kagurazaka stars as an intergalactic mailwoman (or rather, mail-gynoid), Yoko Suzuki, in a tranquilizing, deliberately paced arthouse sci-fi drama The Whispering Star (Hiso Hiso Boshi). Powered by several 1.5V AA batteries, her composed, methodical heroine is on the mission of delivering packages across the vast universe - a job that usually takes years to be accomplished.

The question that bothers her is: "Why do people cling to the old-fashioned ways after teleportation has been invented?" And the answer which she will eventually find lies in nostalgia and unpredictable human nature leading them to their demise. Now is probably a good time to mention that the (highly lyrical) story is set in the distant future when humanity is on the brink of extinction due to its own faults.

In a spaceship equipped with antique gear and shaped as a traditional Japanese house, Yoko's only company is M.I.M.E. - a computer machine 6-7 with the soft voice of a child and the appearance of a tube radio adorned with Edison bulbs. Her daily chores are, essentially, those of a diligent homemaker, but she also has a lot of spare time mostly spent listening to the audio-diaries on an analogue tape recorder.

Nothing much happens and yet, Kagurazaka commands your attention, together with the exquisite set design (kudos to Takeshi Shimizu) and post-apocalyptic-like locations of dilapidated Fukushima dubbing as the remnants of terraformed planets. With that in mind, The Whispering Star could be viewed as the soulful and solemn requiem for tsunami and nuclear disaster victims, the seaside scene being the most harrowing.

Once the film starts, you are instantly stunned by the gorgeous sepia-tinged black & white cinematography. Miike's frequent collaborator DP Hideo Yamamoto (Audition, Ichi the Killer, The Happiness of Katakuris) and Sono at his most poetic, restrained, even Tarkovskian achieve to-die-for looks in the vein of some New Wave (Nūberu bāgu) masterpiece. A single splash of color doesn't take away from the sublime beauty of this whispered, gently humorous "adventure", whereby Kagurazaka's non-pro partners add to its austere charm.

So, if you open your mind and put on your patience suit, there's a great chance you will be hypnotized by Sono's contemplative experiment.

Jun 25, 2017

Another Alchemikal Sunday (Merzfrau + Purple Dreams)

Merzfrau: Portraits of the Muse, Anna Blume
(Sarahjane Swan + Roger Simian, 2016)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼
Drawing inspiration from the dadaist (love) poem An Anna Blumme (aka Eve Blossom) by Kurt Schwitters, the Super 8 Alchemist duo Sarahjane Swan and Roger Simian conjure another experimental marvel - a lyrical / non-narrative mind-tripper of a film defying any categorization.

Their distorted visuals which transform the viewer into a mesmerized synesthete, as well as into a perplexed somnambulist, are achieved via 'long-expired Kodachrome 40 filmstock processed in Caffenol (coffee + vitamin c + washing soda) and handcrafted with scratches, nail varnish and permanent markers', as noted in the official synopsis.

The refreshing stream of abstract, occasionally 'palindrome-ized' and emotionally charged imagery is complemented by the dissonant score marrying Gustav Holst's soothing piece Venus, the Bringer of Peace to pounding post-industrial beats by The Bird And The Monkey. A weird, yet bloody effective combo!

It sees Anna Blumme (re)imagined as the 'killer cheekbones' lady called Merzfrau (Ms Swan and her highly expressive face), with Loie Fuller (of the Lumière Brothers' Danse serpentine, 1896) 'casted' as Terpsichore - the muse of dance and chorus. Topping their booming and spuming bloom in the midst of harmonic chaos is Bloomed - Simian's delightfully awkward and brightly dusked homage to the abovementioned poem.

(Merzfrau is not yet available publicly.)

Purple Dreams (Murat Sayginer, 2017)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼

The latest offering by the self-taught, multi-award-winning artist Murat Sayginer continues where the previous ones left off - at the peaceful intersection of deified reveries, remodeled myths, esoteric musings and spiritual meanderings. Contemplative and as purple as the title suggests, Sayginer's dreams appear as eidolic figures who might be emerging from the elusive imagination of Kubrick's Star Child.

Despite being rendered in 'plastic' CGI, with all of the 'characters' or rather symbols frozen in time and space, they are imbued with arcane primordial powers which make them wondrously imposing. Whether we are shown Poseidon brooding above the restless waves, an astronaut deeply lost in his own thoughts or a deer whose majestic, tree-like antlers are adorned with keys (to universal truths?), there is something absolute lying behind their stillness. 'Moving' them towards the sublime crescendo is Onur Tarçın's energetic and evocative score.

Jun 23, 2017

Song to Song (Terrence Malick, 2017)

☼☼☼☼(☼) out of 10☼

Taking the "I don't even have to try anymore, 'cause my most ardent fans will swallow the microwaved hodgepodge anyway" attitude, Malick delivers a rather bland and messy high-brow, quasi-natural, faux-lyrical, almost self-mocking ensable cast drama which frequently appears as a frustratingly banal and dishonest soap-opera for hipsters, with Rooney Mara's loveliness, handsome locations and Emmanuel Lubezki's gorgeous cinematography being some of the film's few redeeming factors.

Jun 21, 2017

Void Paranoid

Green is the new Abstract
and Red is the late Hollow.
Flowers wither three screams per second.

(click to enlarge)

Jun 19, 2017

Taste of the Obscure 80s Films

... but not as obscure as those from the 90s

However, my 25th list for Taste of Cinema is as eclectic as the last unicorn hovering in a glass cage above the streets of fire in Neo Tokyo, during the altered states of consciousness.

Still shot from The Legend of Suram Fortress
(Ambavi Suramis tsihitsa, 1985)
by Sergei Parajanov
and Dodo Abashidze

Jun 17, 2017

Alchemikal Sundays (Sarahjane Swan & Roger Simian, 2012)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼

The Scottish artist duo Sarahjane Swan and Roger Simian, aka The Bird And The Monkey, have collaborated since 2009 on a number of projects, involving alternative music (and accompanying videos), installation art and experimental films in both digital and analogue (Super 8) format. Their visual works - created under the label of AvantKinema - combine re- and deconstructed myths with personal obsessions into something delightfully quaint, yet decidedly modern (or rather, timeless), and not to mention idiosyncratic.

For their 'forgotten' debut which is their longest and (if you ask this writer) best short film, they merge the footage shot at the Ring of Brodgar and recontextualized parts from Ghost - Apparition into a hypnotizing, mind-boggling phantasmagoria which looks like a spiritual predecessor to Pais and Fawcett's In Search of the Exile. Orphic and sublimely beautiful, Alchemikal Sundays takes you to the outermost fringes of the subconscious mind and makes you think abstractly and try contemplating on intangible concepts. What appears to be a lyrical narrative about the birth of a Goddess and her (odd) initiation to the Unknown World is told via the unearthly canvases of vibrant, trancelike colors complemented by gothic-like, darkly ethereal music which sets the atmosphere of pure wonder.

Its first ten minutes prove the eye-pleasing quality of symmetry - they are composed of mirrored images which reflect Ms Swan's elegance in front of the camera, turning her into elusive, indescribable, constantly metamorphosing forms. Captured in variously distorted dream states and propelled by the primordial forces of some mysterious Universe, her character is as contradictory as that of the Summerian deity Inanna who also inspired the duo's Orphine. And she remains equally powerful when the film switches to asymmetrical mode, her dress fluttering in the winds of the Beyond...

Jun 15, 2017

In the (Avant)Garden of EFS

D'you know what feels good after an evening stroll and some words written in a fit of creative madness? A couple of hours spent arranging randomly picked flowers growing in the (avant)garden of Experimental Film Society. Yes, I am being quite subjective here, but their fragrance is so fresh, since the ground is not poisoned by CGI fertilizers.

Still shot from Abandon (2012)

Alphabetically, the first in line is Abandon by Dean Kavanagh who casts members of his family (judging by the last names) in a work that blends abstract art and docu-fiction to great effect. However, the star of his show is water whose glassy, restless surface fills the opening frame and whose presence is constantly felt in the film's course - in the wistful eyes, clothes hanging in the backyard and sunlight shining through the leaves. As a lovely young woman watches through the window covered in rain drops (a gorgeous Deren by the way of Tarkovsky image), we are getting lulled into a dream of reality dissolved by peculiar soundscapes. A pair of fishermen has no luck, but maybe at night, when they go to sleep, a sea will calm and a big fish will bite their bait.

Available Light by Maximilian Le Cain whose favorite color is, beyond a doubt, blue (and whose filmography includes over 100 pictures!) tends to put you in a creeped-out mood by minimalist means. A VHS-quality view of a building obstructed by a bare tree is accompanied by uncanny noise which makes us see something that probably isn't there at all - an apparition behind a zoomed-in glass. Repeated twice in a row and later followed by a phantasmal superimposition, it keeps our unease steady.

Relaxation comes (or rather, cums) in similar pigmentation, with Jann Clavadetscher's Blue Orgasm which might be inspired by Derek Jarman's testament feature, although it consists of much more than a single shot of saturated blue color filling the screen. Drowned in the sound of a roaring train, three silhouettes sticking the tongues out are "sent on a fantastic voyage", as the official synopsis notes, through the portal of concentric and pulsating patterns, into a 70s porn. Orgasmic, indeed.

Still shot from Capgras (2010)

Another offering by Kavanagh is Capgras (as in a delusion that people around you have been replaced by identical impostors) starring the director himself and Julia Gelezova. A man roams around a seemingly empty apartment in complete silence until he opens and closes a small, black box when a pleasant piano and guitar piece begins. We see him cleaning the kitchen bar and caring for a bonsai tree before answering the phone and thus attracting the attention of a woman who has been taking a shower. Their short encounter is the highlight of the witty, chiaroscuro homage to silent movies.

Le Cain's Closing feels like David Lynch's long-lost experiment in which the author attempts to capture and freeze the thoughts of his heroine ruminating over something or someone, in the company of a suitor. The slow-mo movement, grainy monochrome cinematography and droney score support the gloomy, contemplative atmosphere.

For her description-defying Dimensions, Atoosa Pour Hosseini utilizes various techniques from multi-layer projections to interposing objects, reducing the size of an image to the mid-section rectangle, similarly to Rouzbeh Rashidi's Indwell Extinction of Hawks in Remoteness. Urban winterscapes with swans and people are intertwined with geometric, azure forms of indefinable origin and complemented by the loud white noise which simultaneously propels our fascination and further deepens our confusion.

Still shot from Flooded Meadow (2007)

Hosseini's aforementioned compatriot Rashidi casts Yihan Zhu as the chatty, yet silenced protagonist of Flooded Meadow which precedes the intermissions from Closure of Catharsis. Intermittently voyeuristic and direct, even intimate, this enigmatic B&W portrait of a smoky night in the city could be labeled as the calm before the storm which renders everyday life as supermundane. The viewer is put in a position of a stranger who doesn't speak the language of the characters, so is forced to observe their gestures in order to understand them.

The (ostensibly) most narrative film of the bunch is Clavadetscher's Goldfish in which saturated colors signify the transition between the reality and spirituality embodied in titular animals. (This is just a free interpretation.) A young guy's (Simon Rokyta) bath is interrupted by the arrival of his friend (Michael Fingerhut) who brings the news of someone's death. Afterwards, "the bather" becomes obsessed with his pets in a bowl, eventually succumbing to their influence and maybe that is not a bad thing, after all.

Reminiscent of Péter Lichter's hand-scratched works, Hot-el- by the filmmaker, photographer and installation artist Michael Higgins operates as an intermission, given its very brief running time, providing heavily damaged footage of the pastoral kind in rusty sepia tones.

A reflection of time's transience, John Puts a Chair Away is Le Cain's third entry in this article and its title couldn't be more illustrative. Beside the scenes with John (Doe?) putting a chair away inside of an abandoned building (warehouse?), we get the glimpses of a tree, metal door and empty, ramshackle rooms (some with blue details, of course) in a cinematic equivalent of Kazimir Malevich's art.

Still shot from Love Me Longer (2010)

Love Me Longer is a (pseudo?) biopic of a former boy band singer, Neil Thompson, assuredly directed by Higgins and beautifully visualized by Luca Rocchini. Akin to a twisted recurring dream, it is comparable to some of Olivier Smolders's Exercices spirituels and Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue, wherein "psychologization" is replaced by wild experimentation. The assorted imagery and Neil's naturally flowing voice-over narration are juxtaposed in a cathartic cacophony of memories.

In Murder, Higgins gives us the pieces of a puzzle about "an unlawful killing of a human by another human with malice aforethought", as the opening epigraph informs us. The aftermath of a (deconstructed) crime is a corpse covered in dry leaves, with sea panorama as the only clue or red herring. On the rocks, a lonely figure meditates, eventually leaving the place. Blurry flashbacks reveal the perpetrator, but we don't know anything about him, his motives and his connection to the victim. The mystery is amplified by a periscope-like view of branches gradually transforming into the bouncy Moon.

Rashidi's delightful, sepia-toned Nightfall deals with the absurdities and banalities of life, showing young man (played by Clavadetscher) arriving home, contemplating, cooking, eating, smoking, reading and watching an antique photo of a woman starring back at us. There is something off/odd about the whole proceedings and the protagonist's following morning doesn't make things any clearer. When his sister or girlfriend or a total stranger (Atoosa Pour Hosseini) comes to his house, they exchange a few glances and hug, raising new questions. For some reason, Nightfall reminded me of the scene with Grace Zabriskie and Laura Dern from Inland Empire (minus the eeriness).

An insight into Rashidi's early career, Shabby Nights blends "un photo-roman" with poetic documentary in what appears to be a melancholy-fueled ode to Tehran (and its lights). Although not translated from Farsi (?), one can sense the sorrowful note in both of the narrators' voices. Old photographs have prominent role in nostalgia awakening.

Still shot from The Mongolian Barbecue (2009)

With his arcane phantasmagoria The Mongolian Barbecue, Max Le Cain searches for the mystical qualities of female beauty. Shrouded in blue, pixels, glitches and TV static, his posing "heroines" produce some weird eye-candy. Speaking of eyes, one is stuck in the mouth, the other in... ahem, private parts.

And lastly, Kavanagh's Three Over Four betrays its low budget, offering some attractive shots nevertheless, and sees Rashidi as an actor in yet another musing on ephemera that life is. Personally, I don't find it an accidental choice, considering the inclusion of my favorite vegetable (tomato) in the finale.

As already suggested, these short films are just a small part of the EFS library, so the exploration doesn't end here...

Jun 12, 2017

Yearning for a LadyBug of a Strawberry Leaf

Sometimes, when I take a stroll, I get pretty crazy ideas which are later turned into a short story, comic or a poem, as in this case.


Silently, she cries
like a burning church,
in a land of blooming cocks.

Faced toward the locked room
where her father sleeps naked and blue,
she dreams of One-Eyed Death dancing
until the Sun turns black.

Cut its head while it's fresh!
And swing, swing with a darkened sky
in your melting heart.

The ants panic again.

The Great Masturbator (1929) by Salvador Dalí

Jun 11, 2017

Diamond Island (Davy Chou, 2016)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼

The fiction debut for the French-Cambodian helmer Davy Chou boasts some impressive visuals and provides an insightful look at transitional Cambodia and its disenchanted and disoriented youth. Only by virtue of Tomas Favel's striking cinematography complemented by the befittingly melancholic score, its meandering narrative does not seem like such a huge drawback.

A coming-of-age tale which portrays the insurmountable gap between the rich and the poor is told from the viewpoint of its hero - an 18-yo country bumpkin, Bora (Sobon Nuon), who leaves his village to become a manual worker on a construction site near Phnom Penh.

The partially finished residential complex of Diamond Island where he finds a job is advertised as future Heaven on Earth, its 3D rendering revealing a kitschy architectural monstrosity for the 'fat cats' to waste their money on. As irony would have it, the ones building the luxurious apartments earn $150 a month and could hardly afford a pantry there.

Bora spends his dusty days carrying scraps around and 'neonized' nights frequenting fairs and dance clubs together with his peers who make advances at local girls, peacocking in T-shirts of oversaturated colors which are also to be found in many details of the setting. One evening, he encounters his older and estranged brother, Solei (Cheanick Nov), hanging out with cool kids and doing pretty well, so soon afterwards, he is 'spoiled' by extra bucks and expensive presents...

As Bora's poetic, minimalist story heads in familiar directions, Chou puts us in contemplative mood of sorts and treats our eyes with one vivid frame after another. Blending social and arthouse drama of dreamy qualities with an 'urban' anthropological essay, he purposely indulges in a style-over-substance approach, but that doesn't prevent him from providing a few emotionally resonant moments. His film has a sincere and modest heart which is in the right place, even when the focus and naïve performances by the non-pro cast ensemble are not.

At the moment, Diamond Island is playing on Festival Scope.

Jun 6, 2017

Phantom Love (Nina Menkes, 2007)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼

A long-take sex scene which opens this feature pretty much explains its title. As a man's sweaty body moves back and forth, a woman's eyes are clouded with apathy. We assume they are lovers, but their love and passion seem to be things of the past - mere ghosts.

Her name is Lulu and her accent betrays the Russian origin. She works as a croupier in a Koreatown casino and her daily routines, involving her medicated, self-destructive sister and the aforementioned penetrator of a boyfriend, intensify her anxiety. The telephone conversations with her intrusive mother do not bring joy to her life either. Familial love is also of the phantom kind.

The film's deliberate pace, absence of music and morose B&W visuals reflect Lulu's inner workings - her crumbling psyche, to be precise. Even the TV footage of the Iraq War is utilized as the indicator of her anger and frustratrion. And frequently, it is hard to tell where her reality ends and fantasy (dreams, memories and hallucinations) begins. On her way back home, a snake slithers through the hallway. At one point, she levitates above her bed and explodes into nothing, during a sequence which is the obvious homage to Tarkovsky's The Mirror.

About ten minutes into the fragmented, non-linear and to a certain extent, hermetic story, she polishes her nails so ferociously that one gets the impression her nervous breakdown is imminent. However, the pressures only make her stronger and the epilogue sees her liberated... or is it just her mind playing tricks on both her and the viewer?

Nina Menkes invites us to recognize, understand and process some of our own issues and yet, what she has in store for us is not constantly inviting, given that some 'choruses' repeat too many times. Thankfully, her haunting cinematography commands our attention at any given moment, and Deren-esque and Lynchian vibes are definitely not to be underestimated.