Apr 24, 2023

Il Futuro / The Future (Alicia Scherson, 2013)

***(*) our of 10

MUBI’s take on ‘The Future’ is a fine example of false advertising, and it goes like this:

“A surreal, freewheeling adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s novel A Little Lumpen Novelita, this remarkable film from Chilean director Alicia Scherson leaps between genres – from noir to 50’s sci-fi pastiche. Told through a series of flashbacks, The Future is a thrillingly postmodern, magic-realist enigma.”

Even though I’m not familiar with the source material, I’ve seen enough ‘surreal’ and ‘magic-realist’ pieces of cinema to know that a mysterious (or rather, meta-gimmicky) light seen by two protagonists can hardly be considered a reason for such labels. The only thing remarkable about Scherson’s film is how unremarkable most of its aspects are, from her bland direction and uninvolving screenplay, to weathered Rutger Hauer on autopilot in a supporting role of a blind ex-bodybuilder / actor who falls for an adolescent girl played with a cold, if uninhibited nonchalance by 30-yo Manuela Martinelli. That leaping through genres is much closer to aimless meandering, with noir-ish vibes only present in parts that feel as if belonging to another film, and 50’s sci-fi pastiche being... what exactly? The aforementioned light, or the excerpts from ‘Maciste’ fantasy features seen on a TV? As ‘thrillingly postmodern’ as a dead horse flogged by a celery stalk, ‘The Future’ is barely redeemed by its decent visuals, with some stylish imagery popping-up in the second half, as well as by the weirdly evocative score.

However, if you want a different opinion to make you waste 90 minutes of your time, here’s the last line from Andrew McArthur’s article for The People’s Movies website:

“Scherson has crafted a fascinating slice of gothic noir that proves to be both sublimely acted and directed. Il Futuro is packed with suspense, heart and nostalgia – resulting in an outstandingly original combination.”

Apr 9, 2023

Fiul Stelelor / The Son of the Stars (Calin Cazan, Dan Chisovski & Mircea Toia, 1985)

Being a child of the 80’s and a total sucker for rotoscoped films (vintage ones, not the Linklater kind), I was completely enchanted by ‘The Son of the Stars’ recently restored by Deaf Crocodile and released on Blu-ray by Vinegar Syndrome, as a follow-up to Cazan and Toia’s first collaboration ‘Delta Space Mission’ (1984) (written about in THIS ARTICLE). A wildly weird mix of science-fiction and fantasy found in plenty of Saturday morning cartoons of the time, particularly from Filmation workshop (Flash Gordon, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Bravestarr), the film opens like ‘Tarzan’ of the very distant future (in the year of 6470!), only to turn into an existential space opera that involves everything but the kitchen sink from learning telepathic communication to facing a mysterious entity that controls time, and evokes Lovecraftian lore in one of its manifestations. 

I can’t tell which Western films were available in Romania behind the Iron Curtain, but I can’t shake off the feeling that the creative team of this low-budget gem did come across René Laloux’s ‘The Masters of Time’ (1982), as well as with some of Ralph Bakshi’s features. They could’ve also been influenced by Vladimir Tarasov’s shorts of the late 70’s, considering that both visuals – quite charming in their ‘wobbliness’ – and synth-and-bleep-heavy soundscapes can often be labeled as psychedelic, despite the gloomy color palette of murky greens, grayish blues, and muddy oranges. The bizarre universe that the viewer is taken to reveals the exotic jungles of Doreea where a young hero, Dan, is raised by pear-shaped critters, an industrial wasteland guarded by a knight who wouldn’t be out of place in ‘Star Wars’, and a rocky planet whose caves serve as communication channels to different worlds, and where ‘matter is in constant transformation’. Speaking of which, Dan’s coming-of-age-and-savior that parallels his intergalactic adventure assumes the shape-shifting traits of imaginative designs, with spatio-temporal distortions and vacuum-defying conflicts posing as signs of the story’s unexpected turns.

Apr 1, 2023

Best Premiere Viewings of March 2023

1. Сказка (Александр Сокуров, 2022) / Fairytale (Alexander Sokurov, 2022)

In the artists’ purgatory, Dante meets Beckett by way of Goya and Doré, their souls converge into a sly entity that possesses Sokurov’s dreams, and as a result of this esoteric act, he delivers a fascinating piece of experimental animation. Cleverly utilizing a combo of deepfake technology and archive footage, the Russian master brings four historical figures in their multiple versions to (after)life, and pokes some serious fun at them against the backdrop of foggy limbo where they’re stuck believing they deserve to enter paradise. The plot sounds like the beginning of a political joke that involves Stalin, Churchill, Mussolini and Hitler, with cameos by Jesus and Napoleon, and indeed, one can’t help but laugh at those egotistical, imperialistic mugs bickering about various topics, from their clothes and hygiene to religion and ideological isms. However, sardonically titled ‘Fairytale’ isn’t just an absurdist collection of darkly humorous quips – it is a powerful, provocative artistic experience that often remind us of history’s inconvenient tendency to repeat itself:

“Don’t lament, my brother. All will be forgotten, we’ll start anew... The best it yet to come... Soon, soon...

2. Flesh and Fantasy (Julien Duvivier, 1943)

Out of three Duvivier’s films I’ve seen so far, ‘Flesh and Fantasy’ is the one closest to my heart. A peculiar noir anthology laced with supernatural elements and hopeless romanticism, it weaves dreams, premonitions, and life’s multifaceted intricacies, into short, yet compelling tales built upon the dichotomy of fatalism and self-reliance / superstition and logic. The film’s main forte lies in its startling cinematography by Paul Ivano and Stanley Cortez (who would lend his remarkable talent to ‘The Night of the Hunter’ 12 years later), and Alexander Tansman’s sweeping, rapturously melodramatic score, their airtight synergy providing plenty of moments of breathtaking or even goosebump-inducing beauty. Also praiseworthy are stellar performances from the entire cast, with Betty Field, Edward G. Robinson and Barbara Stanwyck standing out as scene-stealers, and Duvivier’s meticulous direction paired with keen sense of pacing, tonal shifts and mystery.

3. Caminhos Magnétykos / Magnetick Pathways (Edgar Pêra, 2018)

In Portugal turned into a fascist dystopia, Dominique Pinon’s ex-revolutionary character Raymond Vachs faces an intense inner struggle that is eloquently translated into a fierce torrent of hypnotizing dissolves and superimpositions making an entire film a dazzling, uninterrupted hallucinatory sequence. The protagonist’s existential dilemma – soaked in the reality-shattering multitude of conflicting thoughts and feverish rants – finds its liquid reflection in kaleidoscopic imagery boldly edited into a formally challenging phantasmagoria. Additionally greasing his descent into both personal and societal hell is the moody soundtrack dominated by droning electronica that occasionally slips into unexpected interludes of blistering metal, jazzy dissonance, and acoustic guitar compassion. The color palette of Raymond’s tearing of time and space would leave Refn breathless in the run for his money, and the film’s puzzling nature – emphasized by the inclusion of Outer God worshippers and ghosts from the Portuguese real-life past – strives to outweird Lynch’s psychological mind-benders. ‘Magnetick Pathways’ is the work of a brilliant cine-fetishist who really knows how to treat the most adventurous among the viewers.

4. Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959)

“It will begin again. It will be 10,000 degrees on the earth. 10,000 suns, people will say. The asphalt will burn. Chaos will prevail. An entire city will be lifted off the ground, then fall back to earth in ashes. New vegetation rises from the sands...”

Ringing stronger now than ever, these premonitory words remind us of how terrible a teacher history has been, as they set the oppressively brooding tone of this highly unconventional romantic drama. Easily one of the most assured feature debuts for both the screenwriter, Marguerite Duras, and director, Alain Resnais, ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ plunges the viewer into the unpredictable depths of emotions, leaving you helpless, as if you were a distant observer. Reliant on sombre performances from its leading duo of Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada, or rather their poetic, increasingly bleak dialogue, the film also strives to unlock the secrets of (traumatic) memories, raising a plethora of questions on the psychological mechanism of forgetting and remembering. Anticipated by stunning opening shots of entangled bodies, its narrative convolution makes it a challenging or rather aching watch somewhat alleviated by Sacha Vierny and Michio Takahashi’s stark cinematography, as well as by Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco’s solemn score. The atrocities of war and its aftermath engage in a mysterious pas de deux with the devastating beauty of love, as the past buries the present in the gaping maw of time...

In the second of two films he created prior to retreating into a life of seclusion, Yong-Kyun Bae adopts the language of slow cinema to build a bleak world of loss and longing, dead silences and lost souls, fractured memories and neverending night(s). ‘The People in White’ is an oneiric, deeply meditative drama about the ghosts of the past so traumatic that the future becomes a certain impossibility. Unfolding at a languorously mesmerizing pace, it feels like one of those heavy, harrowing dreams that tend to make you believe that you actually experienced them. And it’s heart-achingly beautiful, with all of its derelict and industrial locations reigned by the darkest of shadows engulfing the protagonists burdened with melancholy...

6. La navire Night (Marguerite Duras, 1979)

As the camera smoothly glides like a ship across the most silent of seas, there are at least four layers to peel here. One is a story of doomed romance – a sorrowful phantom of de-sentimentalized words. The other is a gloomy ode to the city of light and its ghosts risen – unseen – from their Père Lachaise graves. Then, there is a literal document of the film’s own making – a poeticized, hypnotizing, illusion-shattering behind-the-scenes. And finally, we find an imaginary / unfinished piece of cinema, at once denied and re-confirmed, emerging from the disparity between off-screen voices and crestfallen images. We are kept at a distance, an insurmountable one, and yet we feel close to this strange entity, dead before it was born.

7. To Live and Die in L.A. (William Friedkin, 1985)

A dancer’s painted face which can be glimpsed during the opening sequence acts like a bad omen, its cold expression of indifference setting up the film’s nihilist tone. Add a cynical (anti)hero guided by the thirst for revenge to the pulpy story revolving around the counterfeiting biz, and you have yourself one of the best and grittiest neo-noir actioners of the 80’s. Propelled by Wang Chung’s avid, electrifying score and stylishly lensed by Wenders’s and Jarmusch’s frequent collaborator Robby Müller, ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’ boasts a slick, kinetic direction from Friedkin, and well-rounded performances from the entire cast, its strongest asset being the bold transformation of ‘sleaze’ into an admirable piece of art, as well as the apnea-inducing chase sequence that many critics have already raved about.

8. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (Michael Cimino, 1974)

Sometimes, it takes a single shot accidentally caught after switching a TV channel to fall for a movie, track it down and watch it. This time around, it’s Cimino’s admirable feature debut – a buddy-road-heist-flick in which tonal shifts occur so smoothly that you can’t help but go with the flow and see where it takes you. The stars of the show, Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges, give stellar performances, and spark some genuine pal or even brotherly chemistry right from the very first exchange of wits, with Frank Stanley capturing the spirit of Americana in beautiful widescreen. Although our (anti)heroes live by night, not caring much about the consequences of their deeds, you keep rooting for them charming bastards, and finding unexpected moments of poignancy between all the jokes, robberies, car chases and Lightfoot’s hunger for sex.

9. Hyakumannen chikyū no tabi: Bandā bukku / One Million-Year Trip: Bander Book (Osamu Tezuka, 1978)

Giving weirdness a whole new meaning, this long-forgotten animated TV special – first of its feature-length kind in Japan – anticipates great many Saturday-morning cartoons of the 80’s with its freewheeling melding of genres. A space opera at its core, it follows an intergalactic adventure of a 17-yo boy, Bander, whose peaceful life on a planet of shape-shifters is interrupted by the sudden arrival of invaders from Earth, led by none other than one of Tezuka’s most famous creations, Dr. Black Jack, turned into a pirate.

The hero’s journey is brimful of references, ranging from Ancient Greece and Max Fleischer cartoons to 1973 sci-fi western ‘Westworld’ and Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ to ‘The Exorcist’ and Hammer horror movies to M.C. Escher’s art and Disney flicks to the Panspermia hypothesis and Orwellian dystopia! As the viewer is introduced to the plethora of alien creatures some of whom defy description, Bander faces a humanoid robot, count Dracula who keeps biting his tongue, a Cyclops riding a Pterodactyl-like dragon, a nunchaku-wielding Neanderthal (during a time-traveling sequence), and an evil super-computer that serves autocratic forces. Surprisingly, the melting pot of a story is pretty easy to follow, and it doesn’t feel like a mere patchwork of incongruous influences and homages – it is a wildly imaginative exploration of the destructive side of human nature, as well as an eco-conscious parable featuring a short lesson on evolution according to Darwin. Although the animation hasn’t aged well, the diversified, borderline experimental artwork  beautifully accompanied by eclectic soundtrack of epic orchestrations, psychedelic rock, and funky disco provides a gripping, inner child-awakening experience.

10. Arracht / Monster (Tom Sullivan, 2019)

Filmed in Irish Gaelic, and set during the Potato Famine of the mid-1840’s, the feature debut by actor turned filmmaker Tom Sullivan is a bleakly beautiful and subtly directed tone poem about hope, kindness and the perseverance of human spirit in times of moil, despair, treachery and death. Its forte lies in two captivating leading performances by Dónall Ó Héalai, whose haggard physicality mirrors his character’s tragedy, and firsttimer Saise Quinn portraying orphaned Kitty whose angelic looks and innocence rekindle the mournful man’s paternal instincts, and heal his tender heart. Equally striking is Kate McCullough’s cinematography that captures the countryside of Ireland at its most depressing, with rocky shore, withered grass, nearly-black sea and steely, cloudless sky accentuating the protagonists’ misery. Complementing the austere atmosphere is a phantasmal dialogue of the elegiac, evocative score by veterans of Kíla with the imposing soundscape in which the crashing of the waves and the howling of the wind become an uncanny presence.

11. El Mar / The Sea (Agustí Villaronga, 2000)

Three friends who suffered a shared childhood trauma reunite in a tuberculosis sanatorium where the ghosts of their past awaken in the atmosphere of omnipresent death and sexual repression. Laced with a myriad of conflicting and/or self-destructing emotions, this ostensibly simple story acts as a psychologically complex character study built around a thorny love triangle, identity issues, and dichotomy of homosexuality and Christianity. Villaronga’s meticulously understated direction and believable performances, particularly from Roger Casamajor and Bruno Bergonzini in their uninhibited big-screen debuts, anchor this darkly poignant drama, its nuances captured in both beautiful cinematography by Jaume Peracaula, and melancholic score by Javier Navarrete.

Five curious boys are initiated into the world of adults by my namesake Nikola (Zoran Radmilović at his most Belmondo-esque cool) in Mirza Idrizović’s delightful debut which firmly embraces the whims of European modernist cinema and mixes them with local flavors to witty effect, amidst the city suburbia that appears like the ghetto from Pasolini’s ‘Accattone’. Making the transition from kid’s play and mischief to talks about sex and first encounter with a prostitute (vampy Dušica Žegarac) as smooth as silk is the synergy of Kornelije Kovač’s jazzy score and Miroljub Dikosavljević’s handsome framing.

13. Unicorn Wars (Alberto Vázquez, 2022)

Inspired – in the author’s own words – by ‘Bible’, ‘Bambi’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’, though ‘Care Bears’ by way of ‘Happy Tree Friends’ also come to one’s mind, Alberto Vázquez’s sophomore feature operates as a bleak, nihilistic exploration of sibling rivalry, pathological ambition, religious zealotry, authoritarianism, egotism and militarism, making ‘Watership Down’ look like a Disney flick. Anti-war, anti-fascist and anti-clerical to the bone, this grim fable pulls no punches in its graphic depiction of candy-colored teddy bears engaging in the acts of gory violence, twincest, matricide, cannibalism, and abuse of psychedelic substances extracted from big, juicy rainbow-caterpillars. Brainwashed into the Holy War against unicorns of the Magic Forest, the inherently cuddly creatures are transformed into the instruments of senseless killing, with the last remnants of hope minced and drowned in the puddles of blood. The film’s ‘cute’, Saturday-morning-toon-like aesthetics – boldly subverted (or rather, strongly opposed) by the tale’s content, and complemented by some black humor – offer but a few sighs of relief in a visceral experience comparable to multiple unicorn horn stabs in the stomach. Vázquez’s audacity is nothing short of admirable, and he has gathered a team of talented artists to breathe grotesque life into his oddly, depressingly beautiful vision.

History is transmuted into a dream represented as a cinematic ritual in which action is reduced to symbols, and the passing of time is suggested by the camera’s elaborate movements beautifully capturing the ascetic, yet magnificent mise-en-scène. Quite possibly the most peculiar story of Attila the Hun or rather, the analysis of his behavior, as noted in the opening crawl, ‘The Technique and the Rite’ feels like a test film for Miklós Jancsó’s masterpiece ‘Electra, My Love’ (1974), with his signature style instantly recognizable in elegant one-takers.

15. Hon dansade en sommar / One Summer of Happiness (Arne Mattson, 1951)

After seeing three films by Arne Mattson, I think it’s safe to claim his work comes across as more accessible than that of his widely recognized compatriot Ingmar Bergman, which by no means diminishes its value. On the surface, ‘One Summer of Happiness’ is a light romantic / coming-of-age drama with a tragic epilogue (announced in the very opening), and you don’t even have to scratch it too much to notice the clash between the religious conservatism and socialist-minded liberalism painted against the backdrop of urban haughtiness vs. rural straightforwardness. Controversial in its time for one short scene involving the nudity of two young (and handsome) protagonists, Kerstin (Ulla Jacobsson) and Göran (Folke Sundquist), this titillating ode to love is quite tame by today’s standards, its themes still being relevant in many parts of the world. Mattson elicits excellent performances from his entire cast, with John Elfström perfectly embodying hate and faux spirituality in the character of minister, and by virtue of Göran Strindberg’s camera, paints both the beauty and hardships of pastoral life in compelling black and white.

16. Tokyo Vampire Hotel (Sion Sono, 2017)

At his most unrestrained (read: gleefully anarchic and merrily misanthropic), Sion Sono delivers a hyper-stylized, batshit crazy, unapologetically outré vampire flick in which two clans of bloodsuckers, Draculas and Corvins, fight over a ‘chosen one’ born on the 9th second past 9:09 a.m. (of September 9, I presume) in 1999. The former appear like an ethno-hippie cult living in a Romanian salt mine and fearing the crucifix, whereas the latter run a Tokyo hotel, Requiem, sustained by a ‘princess’ figure whose vagina is an entrance to (or exit from?) a Dantean inferno crowded with self-harming humans. The edifice interior is designed by Takashi Matsuzuka – fresh off ‘Antiporno’ – so you can expect the outbursts of bright colors both in rooms and hallways that will be sprayed with gallons of blood once the carnage of ‘Why Don’t You Play in Hell?’ proportions begins. Yes, everything about ‘Tokyo Vampire Hotel’ – edited from a six and a half hour long series – is defiantly over-the-top, rarely allowing you a breather to decide who to root for, or try to figure out how the locations on a European soil and Asian island are connected. Add to that a shriveled mater familias whose downfall is plotted by her incestuous children in one of a few betrayals saucing up the story, and you have yourself 140 minutes of wild, anime-like eccentricities, as well as a fine proof that action scenes should always be propelled by metal music.


Christmas on Earth (Barbara Rubin, 1964)

Opening with Velvet Underground’s ‘Venus in Furs’ and featuring Little Willie John’s ‘Fever’ on a diverse, psychedelic pop-rock soundtrack that nowadays operates like a groovy time-capsule, Barbara Rubin’s first and only completed film is, hands down, one of the most transgressive debuts, its alternative title betraying the provocative contents. Dreamily shot on a 16mm camera lent by Jonas Mekas, and entirely composed of tinted, frame-within-frame overlays, it beautifully captures the wild spirit of sexual revolution in a series of erotic performances almost ritualistic in their genital celebration. What Rubin (only 17 at the time!) achieves is transcending the carnal nature of her work, with extreme close-ups of both male and female reproductive organs often transformed into abstract backgrounds for the acts of free love.

Hidari (Masashi Kawamura, 2023)

A proof-of-concept for a feature-length film, ‘Hidari’ is a mighty impressive piece of stop-motion animation which utilizes beautiful wooden carved puppets – inspired by the work of legendary (possibly fictitious) Edo-era artist Jingorō Hidari – in a spellbinding fighting choreography captured by some expert camerawork. If you’re a fan of Samurai lore, I can guarantee that you will be left wanting more!