Aug 31, 2017

Atomic Blonde (David Leitch, 2017)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼(☼) out of 10☼

I shall start this review by saying that Atomic Blonde is hands down the most fulfilling cinema experience I've had this year so far. Despite the fact that action spy thrillers are not my cup of tea (I don't remember the last time I sit through a James Bond flick), I just couldn't take my eyes off of the screen - the movie is as gorgeous as its star.

In his first solo directorial venture, David Leitch finds a fiery, feisty, ass-kicking muse in Charlize Theron whose magnetic physical presence, disarming charisma, scene-stealing performance and even charmingly fake British accent give the most (if not all) of her 007 colleagues a run for their money. With stately grace and (ostensibly) frigid stoicism, she portrays an MI6 agent, Lorraine Broughton, who will use everything at her disposal, from red high-heels to a rubber hose, in order to defeat the seemingly stronger opponents standing in the way of her mission.

And speaking of mission, she is sent to Berlin during the Cold War and tasked with investigating the murder of a fellow agent (and possibly a lover, as we are informed via dreamy flashbacks), James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave), and retrieving a compromising list of double agents, in days preceding the Fall of the Wall. Partnered with a rogue-ish station chief, David Percival (James McAvoy, sporting a Sinead O'Connor hairdo, at the top of his game) and tailed by an enigmatic woman (Sofia Boutella's seductive Delphine Lasalle), as well as by the savage Eastern Bloc spies, she navigates through a risky, dangerous game of politics and intrigue including a healthy dose of double-crossing and back-stabbing.

A simple, yet a bit convoluted story - adopted by Kurt Johnstad of 300 fame from Antony Johnston and Sam Hart's graphic novel The Coldest City - is the film's least hard-hitting aspect and plays out as a campy version of any given Bond or Bourne scenario. However, Leitch helms with such verve, energy, lightness and confidence that the film remains incessantly engaging and exciting, whether it's vintage cars rolling over or Lorraine (frequently) lighting a cigarette that we are shown. Not to mention his mind-blowing style over substance approach never fails.

For this ex-stuntman turned director, Lorraine's character is a logical progression and a much cooler creation than Keanu Reeves's John Wick of the eponymous 2014 elite assassin fantasy which he is uncredited for. His hot and extremely skilled blonde appears capable of stopping an atomic disaster if needed, even though she's not adorned with any super powers that would help her bruises heal faster (since icy baths rarely do the trick). Indeed, the fashionable heroine is represented through the male gaze, especially in the Blue is the Warmest Color-esque sequence of, ahem, extracting a piece of information, yet Theron's gravitas, self-esteem and intelligence form a sort of feminist armor around her.

As commendable as Ms Broughton's fighting maneuvers (where Leitch truly shines) are Johathan Sela's astonishing cinematography and the authentic, slightly modernized throwback to the late, simultaneously glamorized and deglamorized 80s, replete with musical hits of the time, weirdly juxtaposed 99 Luftballons being the stand-out. Combined with beautifully designed costumes, both steely grays of Berlin's exteriors and the neonized (or just saturated) colors of classy interiors provide loads of shots worthy of a gallery wall. With eye-candy in abundance, the monochrome imagery of the debriefing room - that serves as a 'red-herring teaser' and sees Toby Jones and John Goodman as Lorraine's superior and CIA agent, respectively - waters down the overwhelming sweetness and allows the viewer to catch a breath.

And let's not forget the tight editing (kudos to Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir) and that crazy, totally unexpected homage to Tarkovsky which is also one of Atomic Blonde's highlights.

Aug 29, 2017

A Double Dose of Short Film (Lust Bath / Solar Soliloquy)

Lust Bath / Dutch Cave at Noon (Janja Rakuš, 2012)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼

So simple and yet so effective. The Slovenian writer, filmmaker, visual and performing artist Janja Rakuš erases the (thick) line between the parietal and contemporary art, spinning a multilayer fantasy by using a single image. A blue-orange scene which depicts a bicycle rider pedaling away from a group of angry prehistoric hunters is animated via effects mimicking waves of different amplitudes and accompanied by the atmospheric, somewhat uncanny sounds of bubbling water and distant wind howling (John Watermann).

Is it just a stylistic exercise, a witty homage to the earliest bursts of creativity or a comment on narrow-mindedness preventing progress? It could also be viewed as an attempt to envision an alien force examining some forgotten earthly artifact or as a joke played on the viewer over-analyzing it. (Hell, maybe the rider is a bad guy!) Whatever the case may be, Lust Bath is an inspired piece of experimental cinema.

Solar Soliloquy (Garrick J Lauterbach, 2015)
☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼
Whether he's visualizing a song for the mad French genius Igorrr (Opus Brain) or making an essay documentary on the Swiss artists couple Silvia Gertsch and Xerxes Ach (Everything That We Saw, originally Alles was wir sahen, highly recommended!), Garrick J Lauterbach makes sure to put you in a contemplative mood.

In an aural, trip-hop sci-fi mystery Solar Soliloquy, he collaborates with Audio Dope (Mischa Nüesch), taking high art approach to directing a music video. His lyrical story opens with a nebula of colors suddenly turning grayish white as the sky above the metropolis of glass, steel and concrete constructions. The imagery of imposing rocky hills intrudes and we witness the birth or rather, the arrival of a blonde young man who is presumably an alien being (angel?) in human guise or a dead soul resurrected for a few fleeting moments back amongst the living.
What follows is the unidentified protagonist's experience on Earth, involving a box match (we only see the aftermath of) and a wild night at a dance club which ends in re-merging with the Universe, all beautifully captured with the keen eye of DoP Tobias Kubli. Lending his unusual physiognomy and giving the expressive performance is Benjamin Jäger in the starring role.

Aug 25, 2017

Our Lady of Hormones (Bertrand Mandico, 2015)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼ 

'Conjuring up the combined memories' of several films (such as Wilder's masterpiece Sunset Boulevard) that deal with 'the twilight of an actress or artistic menopause', as Mandico himself puts it, this French auteur delivers a half-hour tour de force of bizarre neo-surrealism, disturbing eroticism and Nouvelle Vague homages.

Out Lady of Hormones (originally, Notre-Dame des Hormones) recounts the extremely vivid and not to mention unapologetically eccentric tale of rivalry, jealousy, primeval desires and human inability to domesticate the basic impulses. Two actresses portrayed with wicked glee and self-deprecating humor by Elina Löwensohn and Nathalie Richard roam a magical forest, rehearsing a play which involves aged Oedipus sporting elongated nipples (no joke). After they discover a hairy and amorphous creature adorned with a phallic excrescence (and making the console from eXistenZ look cute in comparison), they become entrapped in the endless cycle of mutual distrust, murder and miraculous resurrection.

As Löwensohn and Richard have a whale of a time bringing their zany characters to fantastical life and pulling the viewer into their burlesque realm, we are treated to the arresting visuals drenched in sultry purples and captured on 16mm tape which lends the picture a soft 'patina'. The exquisite costume and production design, coupled with quaint, yet oh-so refreshing practical effects, provide plenty of succulent eye-candy and quite a unique viewing experience, despite the myriad of fine art and cinematic influences, from Gabrielle d'Estrées et une de ses soeurs to Harry Kümel's Daughters of Darkness.

To paraphrase my comment on Mubi where this avant-garde fantasy is currently playing, it feels like Guy Maddin meets David Cronenberg at his peak in a phantasmagoric world ruled by That Obscure Object of Desire which shares the perverse mindset of Alain Robbe-Grillet and has Jean Cocteau's holy saliva smeared all over it. Genre-defying and 'very French', Our Lady of Hormones displays 'the dignified decadence' of a bygone era, establishing a dreamlike or rather, nightmarish atmosphere of sourly sweet nostalgia.

Aug 24, 2017

7 Randomly Picked Recent Films I Watched in August Reviewed as Shortly as Possible in Chronological Order

1. Human Core (Manfre & Iker Iturria, 2011) - Experiments on human specimens in a well-controlled (and superbly designed!) environment. It feels like Jørgen Leth's absurdly funny pseudo-documentary Good and Evil filtered through the lens of Luc Besson mimicking George Lucas's THX 1138 and some futuristic reality show hosted by a devil-in-disguise kinda guy (bravura by Demian Sabini). Available for free viewing through Vimeo. (7+)

2. Fugue (Jorge Torres-Torres, 2015) - A solid arthouse mystery drama with a fragmented low-key narrative that focuses on a girl, Claire (the unaffected performance by Sophie Traub), who suffers dissociative fugue and wanders amongst wild horses on a sunbathed Puerto Rican island. Everything (or the most of what) we are shown might be just happening in her head, during a hypnosis session... Available for free viewing through Vimeo. (7)

3. Trent (Curtis James Salt, 2015) - Shot for 12 grands only, with the cast of non-professional actors, this stylish psychological horror doesn't reach the heights of Polanski's Repulsion (probably one of Salt's sources of inspiration), yet it provides some trippy visuals (especially during the the ambiguous conclusion's incandescent black & red sequence) which reflect the sustained interweaving of the titular protagonist's realities, memories/flashbacks and paranoid hallucinations. Available for free viewing through Vimeo. (7+)

4. Bitcoin Heist / Sieu Trom (Ham Tran, 2016) - My first encounter with the Vietnamese cinema is a glossy heist movie that employs all of the subgenre tropes and almost turns into torture porn at one point, only to switch back to being Asian version of The Italian Job or some such Hollywood flick. The impressive cinematography and ensemble cast (including the charismatic real-life magician Petey Majik Nguyen) save it from lapsing into mediocrity. (6+)

5. Some Freaks (Ian MacAllister McDonald, 2016) - A poisonous and slightly overrated romantic dramedy which is neither very romantic, nor particularly funny in its reveling in the adolescents' agony. Thomas Mann and Lily Mae Harrington as a one-eyed boy and an overweight girl in (turbulent) love lend some gravitas to their hissing characters. (5)

6. Fist & Faith (Zhuoyuan Jiang, 2017) - The tagline for Jiang's cool, hyper-stylized sophomore effort could be: "Let me read or die!" Set in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, it recounts a passionate, Crows Zero-like coming-of-age tale packed with great action scenes and seasoned with a few pinches of anachronisms and slapstick humor, until things get bloody serious. The animated prologue and epilogue vignettes add an extra oomph to the proceedings which involve gang battles and secret reading societies, occasionally in a painted, 3D comic book-like environment. (8-)

7. Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars (Shinji Aramaki & Masaru Matsumoto, 2017) - No Verhoeven, no fun. Even though Ed Neumeier returns as the screenwriter, this CGI sequel lacks the satirical edge of the original film and plays out like a long high-budget video game cutscene. Yes, it does look really good (apart from the lip-sync issues), but the same applies to Resident Evil: Vendetta which is, despite its flaws, more successful in delivering monster B-movie entertainment. For the most dedicated fans only. (5)

Aug 21, 2017

The Capsule (Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2012)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼
For starters, let me be honest - I am not an admirer of Athina Rachel Tsangari's feature films. Quite the contrary, I find Chevalier unbearably flat, excruciatingly tedious and not even a teensy bit funny, whereas Attenberg left me struggling between 'wow, that's weirdly fascinating' and 'now, that's just plain frustrating'. 
The Capsule, on the other hand, is a pure delight. In under 40 minutes of its running time, it packs more punch than the above-mentioned dramas put together. Part haute couture fever dream, part allegorical performance and part absurd, neo-gothic fantasy, it drops some edgy commentary on women's essence, sexuality and role in society through the ages, bringing to life several bizarre paintings by the Polish artist and Tsungari's co-writer Aleksandra Waliszewska.

Set in 'a mansion perched on a Cycladic rock', the cyclical story revolves around the daily rituals of six ethereal young ladies (Clémence Poésy of In Bruges fame and Isolda Dychauk from Sokurov's Faust, among the others) supervised by the Mother Superior-like figure (the ominously seductive Ariane Labed from Attenberg). The utterly odd proceedings involve The Exorcist-style head spinning followed by heavy grimacing, late dinners involving raw quail eggs, walking the baby goats and free dancing to the low-key cover of America's A Horse With No Name while wearing a skimpy, movement-restricting 'attire'. Think Hadžihalilović's Innocence playing out in a witches' convent invaded by nightmarish, Bosch-esque visions and you might get the idea of what to expect.

Boldly experimenting, eschewing dialogue for the astonishing imagery (kudos to DoP Thimios Bakatakis who also collaborated with Yorgos Lanthimos on Dogtooth and The Lobster) and mystifying soundscapes, Tsangari imbues her work with both twisted, self-conscious humor and surreal, hypnotic atmosphere. Her enigmatic characters - 'born' in the strangest interior places - appear as simultaneously fragile, innocent and capable of realizing their darkest desires confessed in one of the most whimsical scenes. Their costumes carry a symbolic meaning and the same goes for their 'home' and its stone-cold surroundings in which they remain mentally, physically and spiritually entrapped.

This remarkable 'fashion film' is a great companion piece for Lynch's Dior commercial turned mystery Lady Blue Shanghai.

Aug 18, 2017

DisneyWorld (M. Woods, 2011)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼

When describing the works of the mixed media artist M. (as in Michael) Woods, you can come up with at least one word for each letter of the alphabet (after some thought and googling, of course).

Abstract. Abrasive. Bizarre. Brakhage-esque. Cynical. Countercultural. Disorienting. Deconstructive. Elusive. Electrifyng. Freaky. Fetishistic. Grotesque. Grindcore. Hyper-real. Hallucinogenic. Impish. Iconoclastic. Jolty. Jarring. Knotty. Kaleidoscopic. Liberal. Licentious. Metamorphic. Mind-tripping. Nonchalant. Non-narrative. Offbeat. Overzealous. Punk-ish. Political. Quaint. Quirky. Radical. Rebellious. Scrappy. Stupefying. Trancelike. Transgressive. Unhinged. Unabashed. Vitriolic. Vitalizing. Wayward. Wholehearted. Xenodochial. Youthful. Zany.

As far as his longest short film DisneyWorld is concerned, the most (if not all) of the listed labels apply. A part of The Numb Spiral project which unifies Woods's oeuvre into 'the point at which consciousness negates being, and a cruel illusion maintains control of the flailing senses' (as the author puts it), this staggering phantasmagoria appears as a chaotic, feverish nightmare dreamed by a locked girl from Lynch's Darkened Room. (A Day in a Place also features some similarities to the said experiment.)

It can be viewed as a sardonic satire on mass media, a cautionary 'tale' of drug abuse,  a subversion of the American dream or an edgy critique of racism, consumerism, gender roles, sexual exploitation and/or pop-culture machinery. Whatever the case may be, it is a relentless assault on senses; a hysterical cavalcade of intoxicating (and frequently hand-processed) imagery captured on 8mm and 16mm tapes and accompanied by the colorful, consuming cacophony of sounds.

Imbued with rich, gloriously diverse textures, the psychedelic or rather dissociative visuals establish the atmosphere of sustained paranoia and looming nothingness. Flashing and flickering almost incessantly, they plunge you into a mad world of TV addicts, abusive lovers, forceful uncertainty and circuit board Communions where Mickey Mouse lies disemboweled in a worm-infested pit.

Woods assumes the role of a daring street artist and supported by the uninhibited performances from a non-professional cast, he paints the living mural of our baffling and fearsome present...

DisneyWorld is available on the director's official vimeo channel.

Aug 16, 2017

Taste of the 2010s Cinema

Some good-natured ghosts, mythological creatures, a couscous-eating astronaut, a mail-delivering gynoid and more characters are gathered on my latest list for Taste of Cinema. Read it here:

 Still shot from Painted Skin: Resurrection (Wuershan, 2012)

Aug 12, 2017

Savage Dog gets unleashed on Cultured Vultures

And now for something completely, guilty pleasure-ish different. In the latest film starring the self-proclaimed king of direct-to-video sequels Scott Adkins (of Undisputed and modern American Ninja fame), the jungle of 1959 Indochina gets soaked in blood of vengeance. Armed with fists, Irish accent and later, some firearms, his former IRA boxer character Martin Tillman goes on an ass-kicking rampage that would make Chuck Norris proud, but secretly very jealous.

Read my review on Cultured Vultures.

Aug 8, 2017

Taste of Modern Animation

Peek into the world of modern animation in my latest list for Taste of Cinema which includes various techniques and titles from different corners of the world. From the talking peanuts of Going Nuts to Klaus Kinski look-alike of The Island of Dr D, you will certainly find something to your liking.

Still shot from Blade of the Phantom Master (Joji Shimura, 2004)

Aug 5, 2017

All My Friends Are Funeral Singers (Tim Rutili, 2010)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼

Sporting a disarming smile and a quaint attire, Angela Bettis delivers a charming, dignified performance as a kind-hearted 'psychic advisor', Zel, in the musician Tim Rutili's quirky directorial debut - a companion piece to his band Califone's conceptual album of the same name. 

Zel lives at the edge of the forest, in a cozy old house she inherited from her grandmother, along with the talents to read palms and tarot cards, as well as to cast and break spells. Her only family are a bunch of friendly ghosts who, simply put, spend their peaceful posthumous days in her modest home, but also come in pretty handy in divination and fortune-telling business.

However, when a 'heavenly' light appears in the woods, attracting them like moths to the flame, these 'Caspers' realize that they are unable to leave the place and the harmonious household starts to fall apart... in a maddening cacophony of sounds.

All My Friends Are Funeral Singers is the most befitting title for Rutili's 'folksy' supernatural tale of letting go / breaking with the (superstitious) status quo. Following its own twisted logic, it initially appears as a slice of (after)life drama, taking a slightly - but only slightly - darker turn in its second half, while keeping its wry humorous tone and melancholic underpinning intact. In a peculiar way, it breaks the fourth wall via its mockumentary sequences that are almost certainly the work of a specter called Bunuel and serve to shed some light on the restless souls' past. So, we learn that one of them was in a parish rugby league and, ironically, got struck down by lightning, whereby his love interest in a bridal gown hung herself with her something blue.

Even though they are not fully fleshed out characters (in many cases, they are barely sketched), we feel comfortable around them, just like Zel do, and we easily and gladly get involved in their (sur)reality. The non-professionals who make up most of the cast have this je ne sais quoi about them, whether it's the silent and sad-eyed Molly Wade as the youngest spirit Nyla or Alan Scalpone as a former actor in paper slippers who 'sailed off the catwalk' after getting drunk. And let's not forget the 'Califoners' who appear as a sight-impaired band binding the narrative non-sequiturs with their live-on-set jam sessions and thus, establishing the offbeat 'spiritualistic' atmosphere of the film.

To further help you get into the right mood, Rutili inserts some sort of intertitles containing the old wives' beliefs that are likely footnoted in a chiromancer's textbook, like 'if your nose itches you will son be kissed by a fool' or 'a wish will come true if you make it while burning onions'. In addition, his set decorator Keith Kolecki fills the interiors with all the baubles and trinkets you'd expect to see in a clairvoyant's dwelling. The antique magick is captured in the experimental visuals - a combination of crispy clean imagery, dreamy superimpositions and grainy, Super 8-ish intrusions - and dispelled in the final shot that operates as a comment on the illusory nature of cinema.

Aug 3, 2017

The Loner (Daniel Y-Li Grove, 2016)

 ☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼

Frequently drenched in iridescent neon lights – sultry pinks, venomous greens and foreboding yellows, The Loner (aka The Persian Connection) marks a sexy, stylish feature debut for Daniel Y-Li Grove and develops as a simple, yet effective neo-noir-ish B gangster flick with Iranian flavor (harkening back to Ayatollah Khomeini's era) and 'Refnesque' feeling, supported by the well-rounded performances from the co-writer star Reza Sixo Safai (of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night fame) and the lovely Helena Mattsson (lending some gravitas to her whore/mother/lover/pop-punk princess character), as well as by Steven Capitano Calitri's seductive cinematography and Photek's pulsing synth score (not to mention Julian Sands as a sleazy, wig-wearing crime lord).