Apr 27, 2019

Alice in Dreamland (Kentaro Hachisuka, 2015)

 ☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼

1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) have both been the subjects of numerous adaptations in various media, Jan Švankmajer’s 1988 hybrid film being a cult favorite and Tim Burton’s infamous duology being one of the most recent attempts to revive these pieces of the 19th century prose.

A serious contender for the most bizarre revamp of Lewis Carroll’s writings comes from the world of Japanese indie animation, which is hardly a surprise, considering that Japan has always been a fertile ground for the wonderfully outré cinematic offerings. Kentaro Hachisuka's crowd-funded debut anime employs a quaint, yet effective collage technique to convey the story which chronicles another of Alice’s subconscious trials and which, on the other hand, is the weakest or rather, the least surreal point of this (45 minute long) fantasy.

A pretty straightforward good vs. evil narrative plays out like a feverish fairy tale conceived by a gothic lolita girl whilst playing with her friends, the characters feeling like archetypes at best and cardboard cutouts at their worst (well, they actually are cutouts, so it’s hard to blame them for being what they are). We see Alice implored by White Rabbit to follow him once again and stop Darkness (much different than the unforgettable Devil-like antagonist of Legend) from bringing both of their worlds to the end. In a meta twist, she is fully aware that Alice in Wonderland is just a book, so initially she is reluctant to abandon her reality, but once the bunny reappears and her sister disappears, there’s no more time for shilly-shally.

After her fall through the hole (in the chest of a creepy, monumental bust), we are introduced to the titular Dreamland which is replete with landscapes looking as if straight out of Hieronymus Bosch’s or the Brothers’ Grimm nightmares, with the Mad-gone-Sad Tea Party occurring in a lush garden where Humpty and Dumpty lie squashed. The familiar inhabitants of this whimsical realm, from the Hookah-Smoking Caterpillar to the Red and the White Queen (with carousels for the legs!), are all crafted as porcelain, oft morbidly cute dolls by Mari Shimizu, then photographed and animated via stop-motion. It is obvious that the visuals are done on a very tight budget, yet they are aesthetically pleasing and not to mention refreshing, all by virtue of the veteran puppeteer’s great attention to detail. And let’s not forget a loving homage to the prominent silhouette animator Lotte Reiniger by the way of The Seventh Seal ending.

Also commendable is the superb voice acting by the experienced cast tasked with breathing life into expressionless puppets, as well as the darkly ethereal score composed by the musician working under the pseudonym of “arai tasuku”, with the suitably odd opening and ending themes performed by the neo-classical duo Kokusyoku Sumire (lit. Black Violets). However, the most beautiful figure on the film’s aural canvas is a melancholic, gently haunting track Dear Alice sung by Itaru Baba.

As you might have already guessed, Alice in Dreamland is not easy to recommend, but if you’re looking for something that is not your typical J-animation fare (or simply want to be Jabberwock-ed), you might find it right here.

(The review was originally published on Cultured Vultures.)

Apr 25, 2019

Notes From a Journey (Daniel Fawcett & Clara Pais, 2019)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼

Last night, I turned off all the lights, laid on the couch, tucked myself into a blanket and dreamed myself into a strange journey. Following a thin red line between reality and fantasy / raw and transfigured memories / the United Kingdom and the kingdom of shadows, I visited places unknown, yet somehow familiar. Were those the landmarks of a collective soul?

The latest mighty offering from directorial duo of Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais is yet another triumphant piece of the experimental cinema. A bewildering formalistic exploration of inner and outer landscapes via both visual and aural means, it poses a great challenge to the viewer attempting to put the hardly describable experience into words. It starts off as a traditional travelogue, with verdant hills and pastures captured by the camera's unblinking eye through the train (or bus?) window, and accompanied by the evocative string music. But very soon, it shows the first sign of its whimsical design - a shot of a forest barely discernible in the fiery red haze. And then, in a matter of minutes, the image turns nocturnally black, Jarman-invoking blue and snow blizzard-like white - think suddenly being woken up by the blinding rays of the Sun so you might get the impression of what to expect here.

The abovementioned line dancing to the rhythmical clatter portends the mystery which transcends our understanding and harks back to the primordial times. It is the mystery that exists and burns in all of us, yet no one is capable of grasping it, despite the overwhelming sensations stemming from its flame. Maybe its resolution is hidden in the darkness of the room where we are introduced to the authors simultaneously playing themselves and the unnamed characters striving to come closer to the spirits of nature (read: the Universe). When they're not meditating in the very heart of Umbra, we can see them taking field recordings or feel them filming the footage to be 'transformed into artefacts', as they state themselves, that will have our perception tested and our dream of their film deepened or turned into stardust.

Notes From a Journey could be considered a logical continuation of their Studio Diary series, given its autobiographical roots, but it is also the meeting point for their previous features. It possesses the mutating abilities of Savage Witches, the performative rituality of Sacrificium Intellectus, the wanderer's mentality of In Search of the Exile, the alchemical qualities of The Kingdom of Shadows and the introspective, sound-only sequences of The Black Sun. (Writer's note: I still haven't seen the latter film, but I did read the extensive Exploding Appendix interview which sheds some light on it.) Part poetic documentary and part enigmatic fiction, it simultaneously externalizes the 'psychic' world and dissolves the tangible world into liquid or rather, ethereal abstract entities. Adding a lot to its peculiarity are the mound and Neolithic henge monument of Avebury - the leitmotifs of a fragmented narrative and the embodiments of invisible forces at work, not to mention those couple of scenes that wouldn't be out of place in the much loved 8th episode of Twin Peaks: The Return.

Once again, Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais prove to be filmmakers of singular vision, so I will be eagerly looking forward to their upcoming efforts, including what appears to be the bluest of their films titled Plot Points.

Apr 19, 2019

Ruben Brandt, Collector (Milorad Krstić, 2018)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼

One of the most triumphant examples of style as substance (think Takeshi Koike's Redline), and another bright milestone in a long and strong tradition of Hungarian animated films, the fascinating feature debut from a Slovenian multimedia artist of Serbian origin, Milorad Krstić, packs the unique character design heavily inspired by Cubist paintings; some great voice work by both English and Hungarian cast; the eclectic soundtrack featuring Šu Šu Šumadijo by actress / pop-folk singer Olivera Katarina (of I Even Met Happy Gypsies fame) and a sexy, jazzy cover of Radiohead's Creep by Scott Bradlee's Postmodern Jukebox; a hefty dose of stunning action sequences that live-action heist movies can only dream of, as well as a myriad of wittily integrated classic art and pop-culture references (from de Chirico's surreal landscapes to Hitchcock-shaped ice cubes!) impossible to spot in just one viewing, and not to mention the seamless blend of 2D and 3D animation for equally striking nightmare sequences and noirish reality!

Apr 18, 2019

Investigating the Murder Case of Ms. XY. (Rouzbeh Rashidi, 2014)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼(☼) out of 10☼

When venturing into Rashidilandia, one has to be fully prepared to face the Unknown, firmly embrace it and eventually, get completely lost in it. Even then, there are no guarantees that one will be accepted by the strange forces in charge of the tingling audio-visual stimuli stemming from and returning to the Luminous Void. Investigating the Murder Case of Ms. XY. - a German-Irish co-production - makes no exception, with the inexpressible taking us to an unexplored terrain.

The single hint of narrative revealed in the title of 'this cosmically disconcerting film', as Maximilian Le Cain puts it, compels the viewer to believe that the leading duo of Mario Mentrup and Olympia Spanou portray the (interstellar?) detectives tasked with solving the murder of Ms. XY. They could be the predecessors to a couple seen (and most intensely played by Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais) in Phantom Islands, and it's quite likely that they originate from the Moon which is given a prominent role in the mystery. However, what we are shown is not the police procedural, but rather a hypnotizing and somewhat unsettling portraiture of their Earth-selves caught by the ever-watchful eye of the camera and trapped in the victim's limbo. Essentially, this means that Ms. XY is the embodiment of Queen Cinema, so her death has to be a paradox, because she is immortal as long as there are filmmakers willing to break the rules in their search for her essence.

Whatever the case may be (no pun intended), one thing remains clear and that is Rouzbeh Rashidi's unfaltering love for and great understanding of (filmic) silence whose overwhelming power is strongly felt in almost every second of his stark, uncompromising exploration. Eschewing action in favor of observation, he goes on the hunt for Mentrup's and Spanou's thoughts via their penetrating gazes, subtle micro-expressions, superhuman concentration and deliberately muted words in four long, contemplative takes linked with the scenes of mundane ennui, religious procession and wintry landscapes, as well as with found footage of walking on the Moon and, why not, ballet dancing. Very much like the installments of Homo Sapiens Project, these 'bridges' - albeit grounded in our reality - appear alien and to a certain degree sinister, all by virtue of chilling drones accompanying oft-minimalist, austerely beautiful B&W compositions. A short sequence through which we are guided by a smiling nun, and the close-up of Mentrup's character bursting into laughter are the perfect reflections of the film's uncanny side (not to mention those phantasmal superimpositions).

Offering a false sense of calm is the melancholic finale which adds to the surrealism / idiosyncrasy of the atmosphere, and leaves us not only with many questions unanswered, but also with a unique, recognizably Rashidian experience.

(The film is available at Vimeo on Demand, for rent and purchase.)

Apr 14, 2019

Syllabus of Joy / Dangerous Speed

Syllabus of Joy (originally, Slabikář radosti) is the title of the latest short, currently in post-production, by Czech filmmaker Petr Makaj. I can't reveal much about the project, but I can say that the author trusted me, inter alia, with a design for the poster of a fictious B-movie, Dangerous Speed, which plays a significant role in the (fantastical) story, and hangs in the company of various non-fictitious posters from the mid 20th century. Today, Makaj shared a bunch of production stills with me, so I'm presenting the print for the aforementioned design, and apologize to the readers of NGboo Art for the nine-day long silence (due to reasons I won't go into here).

Apr 5, 2019

'Pear Crisis' Diptych

A smile under the caged skies
or a breath lost in concrete paradise?

 Is She a Secret Divine...

... or a Simple Dream of Mine? 

(open in a new tab to enlarge)

Apr 3, 2019

The Night Comes for Us (Timo Tjahjanto, 2018)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼(☼) out of 10☼

Following a simple story of redemption and revenge (or something along these lines), the latest offering by the Indonesian filmmaker Timo Tjahjanto (Headshot) eschews plotting in favor of the hyper-stylized cinematography and heavy doses of visceral, over-the-top action. Written in (ridiculous amounts of) blood, with a broken tibia used as a pen, The Night Comes for Us is a passionate love letter to John Woo's gangster flicks, ultraviolent anime and video games, best described as a spiritual sequel to The Raid movies. By virtue of deep bodily wounds treated as mere bruises and scratches, it savagely pushes the boundaries of suspension of disbelief, boasting the characters with superhuman stamina who keep fighting even after their guts are literally spilled. They may be cartoonish, distilled through the 'rule of cool' filter, however when it comes to kicks, punches and blades of various shapes and sizes, their 'eloquence' is unmatched. It will probably sound crazy, but there's a certain poetry - irreverent, yet morbidly alluring - in Tjahjanto's fetishization of flesh carving and bone crunching which brings forth a flawed, yet highly memorable martial arts B-movie, one thunder god short of being the best Mortal Kombat adaptation.

Apr 1, 2019

Cinematic Favorites of March

The March edition of Cinematic Favorites encompasses ten films - five shorts and five features one of which is a weirdo blast from the past. The greatest viewing experience was provided by Rouzbeh Rashidi's latest offering, Luminous Void: Docudrama, which I described as 'a beautiful, genre-defying (and genre-redefining) chimera' in my pre-premiere review, with Ihor Podolchak's feverish cine-dream Las Meninas and Johnny Clyde's ambiguous eco-fairy tale Floralis coming very close to blowing my mind, so to speak. An honorable mention goes to the Love Death + Robots series, for being one of the b(old)est animated experiments in recent memory. Without further ado, here's the top 10 list.