Jul 31, 2020

Valley of the Gods (Lech Majewski, 2019)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼(☼) out of 10☼

The Navajo mythology and an anti-capitalist parable seamlessly blend in Lech Majewski's surreal, mystical, self-reflexive and highly idiosyncratic tour de force which stars Josh Hartnett as a troubled, old-fashioned writer, John Ecas, who reluctantly accepts the challenge of embracing the absurd, and John Malkovich as an eccentric zillionaire, Wes Tauros, who can only feel peace 'when reduced to nothing', with Keir Dullea (of the 2001: A Space Odyssey fame) in the supporting role of a suave butler, Ulim. Cryptic, fragmented, uncompromising, deliberately paced and brimful of classical music and fascinating imagery ranging from imposing rocky deserts to snake limousine to flamboyant, baroque interiors of Mr. Tauros’ mountain top castle, Valley of the Gods is one of those films that you either adore unreservedly or hate the guts of. Once the credits rolled, I wished to watch it and experience its inviting strangeness again...

Jul 29, 2020

The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre (Joseph Stefano, 1964)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼(☼) out of 10☼

The sole directorial credit in the opus of Joseph 'the screenwriter of Psycho' Stefano is a supernatural horror that was planned to be a pilot episode for a new show in a similar vein as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits (also written by Stefano), but was deemed too scary for the television and scrapped. More than half a century later, it resurfaces (partly thanks to the 2018 Blu-ray release) and it turns out to be nothing short of a flawed masterpiece.

The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre stars Martin Landau as a suave, wealthy architect, Nelson Orion (as in the constellation, in his own words), who lives in a modern and, in terms of statics, seemingly impossible house propped on a cliff over the beach. In his spare time, Mr. Orion becomes 'proto Dylan Dog' who doesn't like to be referred to as medium, and refuses to charge for his services if the haunting of his clients proves genuine. Hired by Vivia Mandore (Diane Baker, fresh out of Marnie), he is about to investigate the case of disturbing telephone calls that have been troubling Mrs. Mandore's blind husband, Henry (Tom Simcox), who believes his possessive mother is trying to control him and, what's worse, drive him mad from beyond her (open) grave. Suspiciously coinciding with this hullabaloo at the Mandore estate is the arrival of a mysterious new servant, Paulina, portrayed by Dame Judith Anderson in a menacing manner which recalls her role of Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's Rebecca.

Right from the get-go, Stefano is determined to impress the viewer, and he does succeed in his intention, with the panoramic view of Los Angeles - initially appearing as a foggy graveyard - being 'swept away' by sea foam in a stunningly edited transition that is followed by the introduction of the protagonist and his cool, borderline surreal place of residence. But, even cooler are the Mandores' gothic manor and their family mausoleum in which shadows waltz the Danse Macabre in gorgeously lensed scenes evoking the masterpieces of German Expressionism through densely atmospheric lighting. It is there, amongst the dead (and their restless spirits), where Nelson has his first encounter with Vivia, and where Conrad Hall (who would work as DoP on the one and only Esperanto-spoken horror Incubus two years later) excels in every single frame. Those 15 minutes alone are the reason enough to watch the film, and not to mention that the rest of it is also packed with strong, engaging visuals brimming with style and as such, worthy of big-screen viewing. Their beauty is elevated by Dominic Frontiere's dramatic, tension-rising score complemented by unearthly soundscapes.

Equally captivating is a slightly pulpish story which thematizes guilt and finds its foundation in the idea that we all are, in one way or another, being haunted, whether we believe in ghosts or not, like Nelson's voice-of-reason housekeeper, Mary Finch (Nellie Burt, highly sympathetic). It is well-paced, oft-generating moments of spine-tingling eeriness, and handled with great confidence, even during the parts that seem to serve no purpose other than prolonging the running time (from TV episode to feature-length format) and/or adding a layer of quirkiness to the proceedings (code: blonde on the beach). Lending it gravitas is the entire cast who does a tremendous job of breathing life into characters most of whom are heavily burdened by their past, and are trying to escape it. Especially commendable is Landau's performance tinged with subtlety, stoicism and hints of melancholy...

Many are the qualities to cherish here, so it is such a shame that Stefano never set in a director's chair again.

Jul 27, 2020

The Metaphysician's Dream (William Kersten, 2020)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼

Inspired by the work of Giorgo de Chirico, Yves Tanguy, Jean Cocteau and the Quay brothers, The Metaphysician's Dream is another superb addition to the pantheon of surreal stop-motion films. Elevating its classy appeal is the fact that it is virtually a one-man show - William Kersten is its director, animator, cinematographer, production designer and music composer, with the elegant score of oneiric proportions performed by the Vienna Symphonic Library software.

Inviting you into a vast, phantasmagorical world is a mellifluous and somewhat mysterious opening track which accompanies decidedly archaic, silent era-inspired title card, credits and epigraph, and fades to silence pierced by a subtle needle-on-a-worn-record crackling. After the curtains are drawn open, we enter a delightfully retro atelier-laboratory where a couple of scientists or rather, alchemists are about to consult their books and perform a series of puzzling experiments resulting in an interdimensional exchange of sorts. As the title suggests, a highly unconventional story plays out like a dream, so most of it is left to the viewer to decipher, or simply allow it to be smitten by its magic.

Amongst the apparatuses and contraptions of obscure purpose, neatly shelved bottles containing various potions, and concrete blocks turned cosmic kaleidoscopes, one can easily get lost, but the non-speaking protagonists seem to know exactly what they are doing. Appearing as wooden mannequin dolls with heads of expressionless Hellenistic sculptures, they may be viewed as modest embodiments of some mystical, supernatural entities who hold the secrets of the multiverse, and are in complete control of time-space. As they establish a link between the past and the future through their present (and cryptic / esoteric) actions, Kersten approaches his cosmogonic fantasy (and perfection) with high attention to details, and in a tight, fifteen-minute frame, he delivers spellbinding imagery in spades, not wasting a single frame of a wonderful old-school animation. Beiges, browns and grays of his characters' bodies and sets are beautifully complemented by vivid colors of props and lighting, whereby the soft focus is frequently used to enhance a hypnotic, ethereal atmosphere. On top of that, The Metaphysician's Dream is paced so smoothly that watching it feels like drifting on a cloud. Kersten's meticulousness, vitality and creativity are pure inspiration...

The film is available on the author's official YouTube channel:

Jul 26, 2020

Knives and Skin (Jennifer Reeder, 2019)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼(☼) out of 10☼

Firmly embracing pure, unruly weirdness and constantly pushing it to the fore, Jennifer Reeder delivers a boldly unconventional coming-of-age drama / pseudo-noir thriller in which a young girl disappearance reveals true colors of a small town community. Although they're not 'beautiful like the rainbow', the Argento-esque, vividly surreal lighting of Christopher Rejano's admirable cinematography turns the rural Midwest - the twisted story's setting - into a wondrous theatre of the absurd. The tightly-knit lives of a few highly dysfunctional families sink into small-scale chaos of perverse secrets, toxic romances and mental breakdowns, with all the characters, both adolescent and adult, hopelessly lost in their 'magical' microcosm(s). Pervaded by delicate choral covers of the 80s pop songs, the dream-reality of Knives and Skin provides the viewer with a rather bizarre experience, as the film makes its baby steps towards the cult status.

Jul 21, 2020

Call for Dreams (Ran Slavin, 2018)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼

"Is the dreamer dreaming the dream? Or is the dream dreaming the dreamer?"

Great many are the filmmakers (or artists, in general) who have attempted to provide the answers to the quoted questions, and yet these questions stubbornly keep lingering without any definite answers. In case of Ran Slavin's sophomore feature which teases the prospect of parallel realities, they can be rephrased as following: "Is the viewer watching/dreaming the film? Or is the film watching/dreaming the viewer?" 

There's no doubt the Israeli visual artist and composer is enamored or rather, obsessed with the borderless kingdom ruled by Hypnos, considering that Call for Dreams explores the very same ideas found in his debut The Insomniac City Cycles. However, his second venture into the world emerging from the REM phase proves to be more successful than the previous one, resulting in an enigmatic, phantasmagorical neo(n)-noir that twists and breaks the thin line between video art and (experimental) cinema.

Set during the rain-drenched nights in Tokyo, an unruly, highly unconventional story revolves around a lonely Japanese woman, Eko (the admirable low-key portrayal by the firsttimer Mami Shimazaki), who runs an unusual call service for dreamers, while a worn-out detective, Ruven (Yehezkel Lazarov, excellent), investigates a murder case in Tel Aviv. The two are connected via an intricate web of dreams enacted in a series of surreal rituals, part Lynchian, part Matthew Barney-esque, and inhabited by a mysterious middle-aged man (murderer?), Russian mobster and his bodybuilder henchwoman, as well as an eccentric security guard who lives by samurai code, but also loves to spy on his neighbor.

When and where the reality ends and the fantasy begins is hard to tell, and for that very reason, Call for Dreams is incessantly intriguing. Slavin boldly refuses to adhere to a three-act structure so instead, he opts for a lyrical, borderline abstract narrative in which the main protagonist could be an elusive, "master dream" entity in control of individual dreams. From that perspective, Eko, Ruven and the rest of the gang are but puppets in the "hands" of that undefined force (the joint soul of the aforementioned cities?) who seems to act in accordance with the adventurous helmer, pulling us deeper into its/his/her extremely oneiric game of ever-changing rules.

The experience of playing this game is comparable to the falling through a bottomless rabbit hole, yet knowing that you are perfectly safe, because there is no beginning and no end, only the soft, mesmerizing, ostensibly infinite middle. And what makes your fall so pleasing is the surrounding imagery - crisp, meticulously composed, bathed in colorful lights and complemented by moody score. Even the obviousness of computer-generated effects works to the advantage of vivid visuals, and emphasizes the film's enticing artifice, whereby the sparseness of dialogue intensifies the strong flavor of eye-candy, and leaves you with plenty of space for contemplation. I will be eagerly looking forward to Slavin's following dream...

The film can be streamed @ Vimeo on Demand and Amazon Prime.

Jul 17, 2020

Between the Shadows (Alice Guimarães & Mónica Santos, 2018)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼

Once in a while, a (short) film comes along and steals your heart. In this particular case, heart-stealing is also the trigger of a quirky story told from the perspective of a protagonist, Natália (Sara Costa). Stuck in a dead-end job (that requires an extra pair of attachable hands), she is a clerk in a bank where people deposit their hearts instead of money. After being contacted by an enigmatic private eye (Gilberto Oliveira), her tedious life gets injected with a risky dose of excitement and eventually, she is faced with a choice of giving up her own heart or keeping it for herself.

As we follow our heroine and her newfound friend evading some pesky shadow agents, Guimarães and Santos pull us ever-deeper into a surreal world that is an overt, passionately written love letter to the 1940s film-noir and art-deco aesthetics. They make brilliant use of a bewitching combination of stop-motion animation and live-action imagery gorgeously photographed by Manuel Pinto Barros, and perfectly complemented by decidedly retro, smoky-jazz-bar-esque score by Pedro Marques. Aware that every second matters in a tight time-frame, they resort to witty and imaginative transformations of the intricately crafted mise en scène, frequently relying on dream logic. To put it simply - their work oozes with so much (hyper)style that it can easily act as a substitute for substance. Add to that many bizarre details with little devils in them and you have yourself a definite must-see!

The film can be rented @ Vimeo on Demand platform for a very affordable price.

Jul 7, 2020

Homo Sapiens Project (200) (Rouzbeh Rashidi, 2000-2020)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼

Imagine finding yourself amidst a foggy forest of barren trees or a ghost town tucked away in the mist. Although you can barely see your hand in front of your face, somehow you do know the way and you're also familiar with how long and arduous it is. All of the sudden, you can discern a ball of white light in the distance, and as you walk towards it, it keeps getting smaller. Once you finally reach it, the luminous sphere is the size of a pill, floating in the air. You're tempted to swallow it and when you really do, a cloud of velvet darkness engulfs you in an instant, sending you straight to the heart of the void. Gradually, your weakened body disintegrates, with your mind and your spirit attuned to the dreamlife's abyss, at once disquieting and comforting. Then, you open your eyes and for the first time you see the nothingness of everything...

And that's the closest I can get in describing the mentally and emotionally demanding experience of watching Rouzbeh Rashidi's latest (and so far, lengthiest) addition to the already colossal Homo Sapiens Project. Composed of 40 short films created in the period 2000-2010 and now eternally integrated into a powerful and mysterious entity, the 8-hour feature provides the viewer with an immediate insight into the artist's formative years, plunging you into a vast and peculiar realm of melancholic grandeur. It often appears as an extremely fragmented, chronologically meandering and unstoppably mutating psychological drama whose protagonist is portrayed by several actors, every one of them bringing a heavy load of real-life issues to the table. Occasionally, the intrusions of other genres or rather, the subverted versions of the genres (such as sci-fi, horror, documentary and romance), break the flow to make it irregular, but that's where the film's attraction lies - in its ever-unexpected metamorphosis.

In equal measures profoundly personal, decidedly alienating and out of synch with the accelerated rhythms of our present, HSP (200) is the last, indecipherable word in the intimate diary lost in an Inland Empire of The Twilight Zone; a Ritual in Transfigured Time carefully performed on the outskirts of the Alphaville ruins; a storm-taming stone rolling back and forth across the meadow of silence and leaving the traces of loneliness behind... Through its strong interconnectedness with the history of (experimental) cinema, particularly the structuralist film, it washes over you with crushing waves of raw inscrutability which springs from the symbiotic relationship between its own and the filmmaker's micro- and macrocosm. And it shows you many facets of Cinema - embodied in people, objects, places and actions (even the most banal ones, such as sleeping or waiting for the bus) - a gentle spirit and relentless oppressor, rejuvenating potion and life-draining toxin, calming refreshment and boiling frustration... and during the last twenty minutes of perverse recontextualizations, a deranged and purifying catharsis.

Through the multitude of evocative, long-take close-ups, the camera of HSP (200) makes love to its 'subjects', reaching for their essence and their subconsciousness, and yet, they all remain distant and alone, trapped in a limbo that exists and persists 24 frames per second. Sometimes, it is due to the deliberately mismatched soundscapes of non-diegetic noise, doomy drones or classical music that they turn into disoriented ghosts. The grainy texture of the predominantly black and white imagery binds them to the past from which they will be constantly emerging, like unforgettable memories, to reshape the future, at least when it comes to any relevant discourse of the 21st century avant-garde film.

The film is available for rent / buy at very affordable price at Vimeo on Demand platform.

Jul 1, 2020

Cinematic Favorites 06/20

The sixth listicle of this (tiresome) year encompasses 12 films (out of approx. 80 watched) - 7 features, a medium-length offering and 4 shorts arranged in order of preference.

I Go Seek | The Scenic Route | Transfiguration: Slow Approximation

1. Я иду искать / I Go Seek (Vladimir Fessenko, 1992) - The game of hide-and-seek is transmuted into one of the most surreal, visually inspired pieces of short animation to come from Russia! 10 minutes that, simply put, have to be seen!
2. The Scenic Route (Mark Rappaport, 1978) (click on the title for a short review)
3. Transfiguration: Slow Approximation (Wolfgang Lehmann, 2020) - Draped in long, fluttering veils of haunting, otherworldly vocalizations, the incessantly trembling and inwardly decomposing images create the immaculate illusion of a transcendental experience. Each shot appears like a fading memory of an abstract impressionist painting gradually and mysteriously mutating as the film progresses, whereby the screen gets transformed into a liquid, rippled surface brimming with vivid colors. Seen in fleeting glimpses, naked bodies act as vessels for ancient souls, eternally wandering between the spiritual dimension and nature's subconscious mind...
4. In Vitro (Søren Lind & Larissa Sansour, 2019) - A ruminative and gorgeously shot post-apocalyptic short which makes great use of split-screen, as it deals with themes of memory, nostalgia and exile. The brutalist architecture of the underground compound where it is set intensifies the pervading sense of crippling melancholia... A perfect match for a double-bill with Jóhann Jóhannsson's Last and First Man.
5. Shell and Joint (Isamu Hirabayashi, 2019) (click on the title for a short review)
6. Le cortège / The Procession (Pascal Blanchet & Rodolphe Saint-Gelais, 2019) - A bautifully retro, elegantly animated pseudo-noir told from the beyond by a victim of a car acident, Catherine, whose love for her grieving husband, Philip, in a way blurs the boundaries between life and death.

The Palace | On the Comet | Stranger on the Third Floor

7. Palac / The Palace (Tadeusz Junak, 1980) - If you like your Eastern European gothic decadently surreal, unapologetically fragmented and feverishly nightmarish, then Tadeusz Junak’s puzzling, psychologically intense drama is the right film for you. Cinema at its most delirious!
8. Na kometě / On the Comet (Karel Zeman, 1970) - From the opening credits wonderfully stylized as postcards all the way to the slightly rushed ending, this oneiric, anti-war fantasy is a pure delight to watch. And it's often pretty funny too (code: pots and dinosaurs)! Putting you in a state of wide-eyed wonder, it will stay with you long after you left its phantasmagorical world...
9. Stranger on the Third Floor (Boris Ingster, 1940) - Exploring the theme of guilty conscience gradually mutating into paranoia, the first 'true' film-noir mesmerizes with its 'artifice' reflected in heavy, unnatural shadows and other hallmarks of the said sub-genre. Peter Lorre is utterly creepy as the titular enigma of a character.
10. Puccini e la fanciulla / Puccini and the Girl (Paolo Benvenuti, 2008) - Recounting the events which led to the suicide of a young maid, Doria Manfredi, who was falsely accused of being Puccini’s mistress, Paolo Benvenuti’s period drama pays a loving homage to silent cinema. Almost wordless, with only music, letter readings and sounds of nature piercing the solemn quietude, Puccini and the Girl is characterized by a meticulous frame composition which lends a painterly quality to virtually every scene. Its visual eloquence is so awe-inspiring, that you frequently forget you’re watching a story of adultery which is but a shameful episode from the famous composer’s life...
11. Zombies (Baloji, 2019) - Brimming with vivid colors, vibrant energy and outlandish costume design (which I'm not gonna spoil describing!), Zombies is a hyper-stylized musical critique of selfie-culture slightly reminiscent of Khavn De La Cruz's films, with the exception of a discotheque scene which gives off a Nicolas Winding Refn vibe. Although the music is not my cup of tea, I felt like dancing to it!
12. Pinocchio (Matteo Garrone, 2019) - A classic fairy tale gets an endearing, decidedly (and even refreshingly!) traditional adaptation in Matteo Garrone's latest, visually striking offering directed with a keen sense of (slightly grotesque) fantasy which evokes childhood memories. Its biggest drawback lies in a fact that it is released into a desensitized society used a bit too much to cheap thrills and provocations...