Jul 30, 2021

Fa yeung nin wah / In the Mood for Love (Kar-Wai Wong, 2000)

WARNING: Unpopular opinion ahead!

My brief history of watching Kar-Wai Wong’s films goes something like this:

In 2012, I was presented with the DVD of 2046 – a visually stunning, but overlong and emotionally tepid flick, and around the same time, I came across There’s Only One Sun which was the first advert-film that blew my mind, not to mention Amélie Daure’s resemblance to Milla Jovovich who I’m a sucker for. Soon after, I was recommended Chunking Express, but I dropped it after 15 minutes, only to return to it earlier this year. I thought it was just OK... ish, yet I couldn’t stand that disgusting The Mamas & the Papas’ song that plays 17 times in the second half. (Yeah, I know the number is much lower, it’s just my subjective impression, and thankfully, I love Faye Wong’s cover of The Cranberries’ single Dreams so much that it alleviated the pain caused by f*cking California Dreamin’).

And so, last night, I decided to check out In the Mood for Love which I’ve been avoiding for quite a while, despite the high, irresistible appeal of the stills which are tirelessly shared on social media over and over and over... It turned out to be a huge mistake, because what I saw was a cinematic equivalent of Swarovski crystals, or rather, a series of commercial-like vignettes glued together with a dull, uninvolving melodrama. In fact, I often expected a branded logo of a perfume or alcoholic drink to pop-up on the screen followed by a sexy voice enunciating the tagline. For the first hour, maybe less, I could immerse myself in gorgeous pictures, but afterwards I just stared at my TV in the mood for throwing my remote at it, while constantly checking my watch, i.e. phone. I couldn’t care less for the two leads (there was more passion in the design of dresses perfectly tailored for Ms. Maggie Chung), nor for what they were saying, nor for the subtlety of their body language, because the film didn’t even provide me with the illusion of love, let alone the semblance of a genuine emotion. The very memory of sitting through all that posing, high-brow sentimentality and smoke of a cigarette filling the air in slo-mo-oh-so-poetically awakens nothing but anger, with the 60’s setting and cinematography combined being a saving grace.

Jul 29, 2021

A Selection of Recent Artworks (VIII)

For almost two years (since September 30, to be precise), I've been working on the 'Bianco/Nero' (White/Black) series of digital collages which blend a great variety of influences, ranging from ancient myths to vintage erotica to steam/cyberpunk aesthetics to experimental cinema, into a twisted, retro sci-fi narrative that explores a secret correspondence between the inner and outer universe, Chaos and Order. I don't know when it will end, but I do hope to publish it in the form a (trilingual) photo-novel of sorts some day, which is why I'm still obsessing over it. Hereinafter, you will find a selection of recently finished 'chapters' including a piece that is too provocative for sharing on social media. You can follow me on Facebook, and if you appreciate my artwork, please consider to make a small contribution via my Ko-fi page.

All'Entrata / На улазу / At the Entrance

L'Esperimento: Seconda Fase / Експеримент: Фаза друга / The Experiment: Second Phase

La Papessa / Висока свештеница / The High Priestess

Equilibrio / Равнотежа / Equilibrium

Il Santuario / Светилиште / The Sanctuary

Una Guerriera Mistica / Мистична ратница / The Mystical Warrior

A Metà Strada per l'Eternità / На пола пута до вечности / Halfway to Eternity

Futilità / Узалудност / Futility

Il Museo d'Arte Moderna / Музеј савремене уметности / The Museum of Contemporary Art

Sulla Strada Sbagliata / На погрешном путу / Down the Wrong Path

Nuova Onda 999 / Нови талас 999 / New Wave 999

Al Settimo Cielo / На Седмом Небу / In Seventh Heaven

Il Club dei Bagnanti Anonimi / Клуб анонимних купача / The Anonymous Bathers Club

Jul 27, 2021

A Landscape with Three Convergent Suns Dying Inside

Yes, I think that I recognize it now, because once I looked straight into the left eye of Forever. Between its divine impossibility and my insatiable desire(s), stood an elusive resolution, glistening in its shapelessness. But it was probably just a dream, one that begins with the announcement of a cataclysmic event and ends in someone else’s head... or in a flying glass cage that is supposed to take me to a safe place. As ridiculous as it may sound, there grows a tiny, thornless rose, and within its bud yet to be formed, a headless fairy tale waits for a twist in the anurous reality. No ouroboric entity can beat that!

Jul 23, 2021

Hogtown (Daniel Nearing, 2014)

“Why is it, when we look in the mirror, we wait for that moment when we forgive ourselves?”

Set against the backdrop of the Chicago Race Riots of 1919, and inspired by the mysterious disappearance of Ambrose Small (whose last name is changed to Greenaway, with his chain of theaters relocated from Toronto to Chicago), Hogtown is a fascinating portrait of both the aforementioned city and several of its denizens – fictitious or based on real people, such as Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson (portrayed respectively by Alexander Sharon and Marco Garcia). A boldly anachronistic / ‘period-less’ drama revolves around an investigation of the missing millionaire case carried out by detective DeAndre Son Carter (a stoic performance from Herman Wilkins) whose ‘black soul consigned to melancholy nurtured in every isolated moment’ is shared by the film’s dense, brooding atmosphere.

Part hardened neo-noir and part haunting tone poem, the heavily fragmented (and somewhat convoluted) story gives the impression of an unconventional adaptation of a graphic novel in which the characters often monologize in third person. The same goes for the highly expressive, hyper-stylized visuals that, despite the obviously modest budget, give Sin City a good run for its money. Assisted by cinematographer Sanghoon Lee, writer/director Daniel Nearing comes up with a barrage of imposing Dutch angles and absorbing close-ups, all dipped in tar-black shadows, fully embracing cinematic artifice, as well as the sculptural qualities of naked human body. Through the additional use of stock-photo montages, on-screen text, color shots, and even collage at one point, he strives to create this timeless, dream- and mosaic-like version of Chicago. Complementing his beautifully framed imagery is Paul Bhasin’s symphonic score that lends the film a touch of classic, and a poignant soul/gospel song performed by Minister Raymond Dunlap who evokes a strong emotion singing nothing but ‘kill me now, remember this’...

Jul 15, 2021

Eltávozott nap / The Girl (Márta Mészáros, 1968)

The first Hungarian feature directed by a woman, The Girl aka The Day Has Gone is a fascinating fiction debut from Márta Mészáros who previously worked as a documentarian, making more than thirty shorts. Somewhat Nouvelle Vague-ish in nature, it recounts a simple story of a working-class girl, Erzsébet ‘Erzsi’ Szõnyi, who travels from Budapest to the village of Várkút to visit her biological, now re-married mother, all the while fending off advances from pretty much every lad she meets (or is followed by) on the way.

In a powerful, yet understated exploration of the clash between the modern and traditional, urban and rural, men and women, Mészáros paints a magnetic, deeply personal portrait of her lovely, reserved, ostensibly icy (alter-ego?) heroine (singer turned actor Kati Kovács whose outstanding sophomore performance is marked by delicate micro-expressions) looking for her place / identity in a progressively desensitizing society. Not afraid to be alone, Erzsi dismisses a romantic offer from a ‘nice fellow’ she meets on the train, stubbornly remaining on a path paved with questions that she alone can answer. The sparseness of dialogues or rather, her chronic non-communicativeness create a thick aura of secrecy around her, and the final shot that freezes on yet another of her deep, penetrating gazes, adds another layer of mystery to her character.

Mészáros directs with pinpoint precision, whereby her writing perfectly captures the awkwardness of both Erzsi’s attitude towards life, and relations to her best friend, suitors, mother and her new family, as well as to a tenacious middle-aged man who may be her father. Employing every bit of silence and each carefully measured movement of the camera (many kudos to cinematographer Tamás Somló) to intensify the film’s elegantly poetic rendition of reality, she transforms mundane, even banal scenes into meticulously composed vignettes of stunning beauty which seem to nullify the oppressiveness of the regime back in the Iron Curtain days. A couple of psychedelic rock tracks featured during the opening credits and in the epilogue suggest her rebellion against the old, reactionary ways, and express hope for the future sans displacement. 

Jul 7, 2021

The Bermuda Depths (Tsugunobu Kotani, 1978)

Part H.C. Andersen-like fairy tale which appears like a spiritual predecessor to The Red Turtle, and part westernized Kaiju flick by way of a Jaws tribute and Moby-Dick reference, The Bermuda Depths easily ranks amongst the most bizarre TV movies in the history of cinema. Based on the story by Arthur Rankin Jr. best known for his animated classic The Last Unicorn, and penned by William Overgard who would work on the cult series Thundercats in the mid-80’s, this genre-bender strives to reach a rather broad audience, from melodrama to creature-feature fans, all the while remaining family-friendly. Does it succeed? To a certain extent, yes, if you are willing to forgive a stumble here and there.

It opens with an oneiric sequence that sees an enigmatic young woman (ethereally beautiful Connie Sellecca in her first screen role) diving sans scuba gear to a saccharine, yet catchy ballad, Jennie (we later learn it is her name) in the crystal blue sea. Upon her arrival to the beach, we are introduced to a troubled hero, Magnus (Leigh McClosky of Argento’s Inferno fame), sleeping near a natural stone arch utilized for a painterly, somewhat Magritte-esque frame by DoP Jeri Sopanen, and through an almost wordless flashback turned into the boy’s dream, we witness the tragic past that made him a rambler. Soon afterwards, he encounters an old friend, Eric (Carl Weathers, who confronted Stalone’s Rocky as Apollo Creed two years earlier), and his employer, Dr. Paulis (Burl Ives) – an old friend and colleague of Magnus’s late father – who are exploring mutations causing gigantism in sea life. And that’s where we come to a villa-sized turtle and a local legend involving Jennie.

Without going into further detail, I can say that what follows possesses certain qualities of a myth, features spectacularly cheesy special effects, such as glaringly obvious ship and helicopter miniatures in the climax, and boasts absolutely gorgeous locations of Bermuda which comes across as a character on its own right. The scenes of summer abandon shot at the beach, underwater (many kudos to Stan and George Waterman), and in a secret cave are the film’s key selling points, although the set design for the dilapidated interior of a cliff house where Magnus grew up has its charms as well, especially if you’re a sucker for ‘ruin porn’. So, if both the pacing and helming of Tsugunobu (aka Tom) Kotani had been a bit tighter, and the majority of performances had been finely tuned, this would’ve become a classic of sorts. Nevertheless, its wonderfully captured exoticism, and a bold mash-up of romance, fantasy, adventure, mystery, action and whatnot may pique interest of seasoned cinephiles and casual viewers alike. Just don't expect a happy ending...

Jul 1, 2021

Best Premiere Viewings of June

1. Den Næstsidste / The Penultimate (Jonas Kærup Hjort, 2020)

(read my review HERE)

2. Armugan (Jo Sol, 2020)

“Life always mocks us. It makes you mistake the end with the beginning.”

Sparse in dialogue, and heavy on visual lyricism, Jo Sol’s contemplative, slow-burning and strangely life-affirming ode to death is a film of immense spiritual power and heart-wrenching pathos, especially during the second half. Stunningly shot by Daniel Vergara on breathtaking locations of Aragonese mountains, it has its transcendent mystery resting in sorrowing silence which is only occasionally broken by half-whispered words, diegetic sounds of nature, and absorbing, emotionally intelligent score by Juanjo Javierre. Sol’s taut direction and superb, largely physical performances by the entire cast add an extra air of gravitas to the ritualesque proceedings.

3. Oscar Wilde’s the Nightingale and the Rose (Del Kathryn Barton & Brendan Fletcher, 2015)

Amalgamating the highly intricate artwork by Australian artist Del Kathryn Barton, hauntingly melancholic score by Sarah Blasko, and voice talents of Mia Wasikowska (Nightingale), Benedict Samuel (Student), Geoffrey Rush (Oak Tree) and David Wenham (Red Rose), this animated short has to be the most visually stunning adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s ‘heartpiercingly’ poignant fairy tale.

4. Человек-Амфибия / Amphibian Man (Геннадий Казанский & Владимир Чеботарёв, 1962)

(read my review HERE)

5. Alias Nick Beal (John Farrow, 1949)

Commanding his role with a subtle blend of gentleman’s demeanor, ominous seductiveness and dark humor, Ray Milland steals and owns every scene he’s present as the titular Mephistophelian figure in John Farrow’s highly atmospheric film-noir. Shadow-filled interiors and foggy exteriors that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Gothic horror are the perfect setting for his unpredictable appearances and sudden disappearances, as well as for all the dirty tricks and string-pulling in political matters which the story revolves around. Adding an extra ‘oomph’ to the stark visuals are the surreal, Dalí-esque murals in the apartment where Nick settles one of his marionettes...

6. The Return of Tragedy (Bertrand Mandico, 2020)

John Waters meets Andy-Warhol-ized Troma in the latest über-bizarrity by Bertrand Mandico (Boro in the Box, Our Lady of Hormones, The Wild Boys) who casts his muse – the inimitable Elina Löwensohn – as a woman, Tragedy, reincarnated through a mystical, mutated-liver-hovering ritual conducted by an eccentric guru (or sect leader?) named Katebush (David Patrick Kelly). Bold, absurd, irreverent, anarchic, provocative, vulgarly beautiful and brilliantly trashy.

7. Kým sa skoncí táto noc / Before Tonight Is Over (Peter Solan, 1966)

Entirely set in a classy nightclub – a microcosm of Czechoslovakian society back in the days, Before Tonight Is Over employs brilliant improvisation and intimate camera angles to introduce the viewer to the customers, gradually revealing their weaknesses, disillusionment and unfulfilled desires. In spite of being virtually plotless, depicting borderline-banal encounters and conversations between the increasingly drunk people, the film rarely fails to engage, slyly concealing an edgy satire of the oppressive regime beneath its utterly charming veneer. This hidden gem of what’s now Slovak cinema feels like a missing link between Buñuel’s El ángel exterminador and Khouri’s Noite Vazia.

8. The Awakening of Lilith (Steven Adam Renkovish, 2021)

Anchored in a dedicated central performance by Brittany Renée Smith, Steven Adam Renkovish’s feature debut – a ‘cinextension’ of his delightful 2017 short Fugue – is an ambitious, neatly directed psychological drama dealing with the loss of a loved one, and the process of grief. It is told from the perspective of a titular heroine – a young woman whose fiancé mysteriously disappeared, and as such, it pulls you down the hole of her subjective reality distorted by anxiety, depression and the feeling of guilt. Lilith’s fragile inner state is often reflected in dimly (candle) lit interiors where DoP Thomas Springer makes the most out of the tight budget, with some of his forest shots (particularly the opening one) being memorable for their almost ghost-like quality. The excellent use of music, ranging from classical tunes to eerily ambient pieces, complements highly atmospheric proceedings which seem to be heavily influenced by Bergman and Lynch.

9. Chunmong / Empty Dream (Hyun-mok Yoo, 1965)

A surreal remake of Japanese pinku flick Day-Dream (originally, Hakujitsumu, 1964, by Tetsuji Takechi), Empty Dream is anything but empty, all by virtue of its often witty Kuleshov montages, silent cinema references, quaint set design inspired by German Expressionism, and stream-of-(un)consciousness narrative reminiscent of European avant-garde. Sparse in dialogue, but rich in cinematic visuality and odd musical textures, it is one of the most offbeat Korean flicks that I’ve ever seen... You’ll never look at dental care (and dentists) the same way again!

10. American Cyborg: Steel Warrior (Boaz Davidson, 1993)

Mad Max meets The Terminator in a Children of Men-like scenario populated by radioactive cannibals, and gangs of Rocky Horror Picture Show fan(atic)s! And the big bad cyborg – sent by the ruling AI system to eliminate the only fertile woman (whose name is oh-so-Biblically Mary) and her canister-bound fetus – ‘bleeds’ just like the androids from the Alien franchise... and did I mention that he has a regenerative ability which makes him a tough bastard to kill? So, originality is obviously not the film’s forte, yet it firmly stands as one of the most entertaining and visually appealing B-actioners that I’ve had the pleasure to come across, and get some serious ‘Walter Hill in his Streets of Fire element’ vibes from. Joe Lara as a mysterious hero, Austin, and Nicole Hansen as Mary both have good looks which often compensate for their slight lack of charisma, and they even share a couple of touching moments somewhat reminiscent of Blade Runner, whereby John Saint Ryan gives a commanding physical performance as a menacing, murderous machine. The supporting cast seems to have a whale of a time chewing the scenery of post-apocalyptic grandeur – demolished cities, underground laboratories, abandoned factories and damp sewers planted with mines, all beautifully captured in Avraham Karpick’s cinematography accompanied by Blake Leyh’s pounding techno-rock score.

Tarzan in Manhattan (Michael Shultz, 1989)

While recently watching American Cyborg: Steel Warrior (a recommendation I picked in the 12 Cheesy Good B-Movies By Infamous Cannon Group list), I remembered another Joe Lara flick that I used to love as a kid and even had taped on VHS, so I responded to a nostalgia call and revisited it. Tarzan in Manhattan is a CBS-produced TV film which is one of the pulpiest and funniest screen renditions of E. R. Burroughs’s character. And a good deal of its humor is derived from a comic relief character – a private eye, Archimedes Porter – brilliantly played by none other than Tony Curtis who brings an old-school charm to the table, though Kim Crosby as his computer-science-master-turned-taxi-driver daughter Jane manages to steal a few moments by virtue of witty one-liners.

Joe Lara is a perfect choice for the ape man well-versed in classic literature (he quotes Victor Hugo at one point), but not adjusted to modern technology, and concrete jungle that is New York. The reasons for his trip to the so-called civilized world are the death of his gorilla mother Kala, and the abduction of his best friend Cheetah by poachers who hide behind a philanthropic organization that secretly conducts experiments on chimps. (Think proto-Tom-Yum-Goong with monkeys instead of elephants.) This is where we come to Jan-Michael Vincent, excellent if slightly underused in the role of a charismatic, yet unscrupulous mogul villain, Brightmore, who runs the dirty business.

As you might’ve already guessed, Shultz takes this opportunity to weave social commentary throughout, raising awareness about the unfair treatment of animals, as well as poking fun at consumerism, wealthy folks and constraints of big city life. He may not be the most skillful of Afro-American filmmakers, but he does manage to turn technical limitations to his advantage, and – with his tongue deeply planted in his cheek – deliver a charming little action film that is never boring. There’s a childlike playfulness (enhanced by a quirky Cinderella reference) inherent in his direction, and a cool 80’s soundtrack, featuring Warren Zevon’s Leave My Monkey Alone and Grace Jones’s Pull Up to the Bumper singles, that reflects his easy-going attitude.