Something hidden -- go and find it;
Go and look beyond the Ranges
Something lost behind the ranges:
Lost and waiting for you. Go!

-- from Guy Maddin's CAREFUL

Being a periodic meditation on some of the more obscure outlying regions of cinema;
regarding movies that are inadequately publicized and hence, easily overlooked --
and by cinema, it is meant in the larger sense of films/tv/DVD/internet --
that might be worthy of your interest, but perhaps has escaped your notice.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008


       With Halloween less than two weeks away, it seems appropriate -- and inevitable really, at least on this blog -- that the next couple of posts turn towards the Horror genre. As cinematic varieties go, the Horror film has a pronounced tendency to divide movie-going audiences -- there’s them that seem to watch nothing but; and then there’s others who’d sooner view a full season of Barney before the latest installment of Saw (and having had the unfortunate experience of sitting through the first one, you might count me amongst the latter...). Truth be told, there’s ample reason for the adverse reaction many people have towards the whole genre: endlessly repetitive plot-lines, gratuitous displays of brutality, acting that’s not merely bad but flatly incompetent -- Horror films have had more than their fair share of these offenses, and more. So when a truly exceptional film comes along that happens to fall squarely into the mainstream of the Horror genre -- but also works as a completely satisfying piece of filmmaking by any standard you might care to apply -- well, understandably it can be a hard sell to those who’ve been burned (Umm... Saw comes to mind again -- don’t see any of the Saw series; you’ll thank me one day...). Which is a shame, since Let The Right One In is most certainly one of the best films I’ve seen this year so far.

       It’s the year 1981 and some villages in rural Sweden are being plagued by a series of seemingly motiveless murders. Coincidently, 12 year-old Oskar is in his first year of high school and, having a hard time fitting in -- answering one too many questions in class to escape the notice of the class bullies. Lonely and frustrated, Oskar keeps to himself -- and on one cold autumn night, while outside on the playground, notices the just moved-in Eli; an oddly reserved and worldly-wise girl of about his age. Eli’s not too interested in befriending Oskar, but is fascinated by his Rubik’s Cube; managing to solve it in record time -- despite never having seen one before. Oskar can’t help but develop a crush on Eli; she seems completely unfettered by her unseen parents, is full of good advice for him and is decidedly unaffected by the snowy chill of their nightly playground visits. Meanwhile, the serial killings seem to be striking closer to home -- and the school bullies are developing a growing dissatisfaction with just pulling simple pranks on Oskar.

       Let The Right One In opens with a nearly silent credit sequence that may have you wondering if the projectionist forgot to turn on the sound system. The screen swirls with a light misting of snow as the soundtrack gradually gains in volume; only to reveal itself as the sounds one might typically hear on any dark wintry night; a light wind, cars driving by in the distance, and snow being compacted by heavy-booted footfalls. It’s an approach the film typically takes to reveal its story -- simple and understated -- with a refreshing absence of screeching violins and cats jumping out of cupboards. Things are simply revealed for what they are -- with the results revealed as being sometimes merely mundane, sometimes truly horrific... It’s worth pointing out the performances by the leads; they’re subdued, spot-on examples of film acting: Oskar (Kâre Hedebrant) and Eli (Lina Leandersson) simply seem to be what they are -- which makes what scares there are, all the more effective -- and prompts the audience to develop some genuine empathy for them.

       Let The Right One In opens in very limited release shortly; in L.A. and New York this upcoming weekend, then moving on to other major markets like San Francisco, Seattle and Denver in November. A DVD release is planned for some time next year -- and an English language re-make in 2010. Let The Right One In has such a perfect pitch as it is, that a re-make seems particularly superfluous in this instance. It seems pretty clear to me that this is the version to see -- But I'm not overly concerned, dear reader; I trust you to make the right choice...

Next post -- 10/27/08

Monday, July 21, 2008


       One could make the argument that all Art functions as art therapy. Whether we’re talking about Vincent Van Gogh or a sixth grader who’s been sent to the school counselor for dipping one too many girls’ pigtails in ink, they’re both painting for the same reason: they have some issues to work out, and some way, somehow, getting it all down on canvas (or paper, or clay...) makes the artist feel better. Conventional psychotherapy has it that art therapy is usually carried out through readily available mediums -- pen, paint... crayons even; sometimes music. Less often utilized are the various collaborative art-forms; dance, theater; but certainly not cinema though -- too costly to produce, too time-consuming to create, too... logistically difficult to carry out. That being said, I can’t say I’m all that surprised that Guy Maddin has managed to undergo just such a therapeutic option; financed by the Canadian Film Board no less. And now screening in theater venues around the country, for all to see, under the title of My Winnipeg.

       For this, Maddin’s first attempt at helming a documentary -- or, as he calls it, a “docu-tasia” -- his chosen subject matter is the history of his hometown: Winnipeg, Canada. The resulting effort, however, could more accurately be called a “docu-reverie”; because the history being recounted is not that of the actual city, but of Maddin’s recollection of it. The film is framed with scenes of Maddin himself (as portrayed by Darcy Fehr; a faux-filmmaker for a mock-documentary), attempting to leave -- escape even -- his native burg by train; but it’s a city he loves... maybe too much. Lulled asleep by the mechanical cadence of the locomotive, the documentary proper begins -- a fever-dream recollection of actual historical facts (including Winnipeg’s founding and geography); Maddin’s own family history (recreated as a series of filmed “experiments” in which Guy hires his ”mother” and actors to portray his family!); and the filmmaker's own visions regarding his native city (his home as he would imagine it to be, rather than as it really is). My Winnipeg mixes live-action, animation and presumably even some actual “documentary” footage in a fairly willy-nilly fashion -- which I suppose befits a film whose narrator is supposedly in a deep slumber.

       Whether you call it “art therapy”, “docu-tasia” or just plain self-indulgence, it’s also all pretty entertaining. Maddin’s take on the documentary form is playfully, even cheerfully irresponsible -- downright anarchic at times; for example: his apocryphal account of a popular soap opera from his youth -- Ledgeman! -- starring his “mother”; who, on a daily basis, attempts to talk a distraught Guy down from a dizzyingly high window ledge. Or a “recreation” of an early twentieth-century seance which turns into an extended ballet sequence -- makes me wonder why more documentaries don’t have dance numbers... For all its reliance upon hyperbole and outright fabrication, the movie is almost embarrassingly forthcoming regards Maddin’s personal and early family life -- the kind of stuff you only reveal to your psychiatrist -- and then maybe only in the fourth or fifth year of therapy (and even then, only if you really trust your therapist...). The appeal of all this personal revelation is that Maddin comes across as a flawed yet sympathetic sort; a fellow whose had his fair share of misfortune and, yes, even tragedy -- but who can’t quite muster the courage to take it all seriously -- even though it’s his own life he’s poking fun at. Oh well, Maddin’s character flaws are your ticket to a fun night at the movies -- would that your last therapy session was half this entertaining...

       My Winnipeg has already made its way through NYC and LA -- and will be released in a few more of the major markets (currently playing St. Louis; Atlanta supposedly soon to follow) before its inevitable DVD release. Check the sidebar for that, later this year.

Next post -- imminent!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


       The Documentary form is capable of far greater variety (in both subject matter and in its effect upon an audience) than usually given credit. Most people hear the word “documentary” and think -- I’m in for it now; 90 minutes to 2 hours of some cinematic polemic about this or that world-shaking crisis -- and many doc.s do, indeed, fall into this all too limited mold (An Inconvenient Truth comes to mind; oh sure, its relevance is undeniable and its message should be heard -- but it’s hardly compelling filmmaking). The last ten or twenty years however, have seen the release of many documentaries that break this mold. Humorous doc.s like those of Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock. Deeply personal ones (and often deeply funny) like those of Ross McElwee. Cinematic “essays” like those made by Errol Morris, which make extensive use of re-creations (supposedly a “no-no” in any serious documentary). But one class of doc. that always seems in short supply is the character study; not a biography per se (there’s been a fair number of those made all along), but a film that simply documents a person -- as he or she really is. Such a film might include a degree of biographical background and historical documentation; but its real intent is to recreate the experience of meeting the subject of the film. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, as it not only requires a charismatic figure to make it work, but also said personage’s complete cooperation in the creation of the film as well. So when it does work, -- as it does in Dreams With Sharp Teeth -- it is worth noting.

       The subject of the film is the writer, Harlan Ellison. Ellison’s accomplishments and accolades would require the remainder of the length of this post to cover -- even briefly -- but suffice to say he’s one of the most notorious and recognized figures in science fiction (or speculative fiction, as he prefers to call it), having won a bevy of Hugos and Nebulas; but Ellison has also written -- and won awards for -- his Mystery and Horror stories (and won both the Edgar and Bram Stoker award multiple times). In terms of his accomplishments as a scribe, it would be a lot more economical to inventory the genres he hasn’t written for. The general public probably knows Ellison best as the screenwriter of two acclaimed tele-plays: The City on the Edge of Forever episode of Star Trek:TOS and an episode of The Outer Limits entitled Demon with a Glass Hand. Ellison’s life away from the typewriter is also detailed: his difficult childhood; his years as an activist (he participated in Martin Luther King Jr.’s protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama); his brief and turbulent stint in the U.S Army; his rise to fame and fortune in NYC; and his eventual relocation to L.A. Any portion of the events covered would make for for an interesting anecdote; collectively they add up to an extraordinarily fascinating life story; a story corroborated by many of his fellow writers (including Neil Gaiman) and a notable celebrity or two (Robin Williams).

       Truth be told, this write-up is far from unbiased; I’ve been reading Ellison’s short stories since I was 11 and have come to regard him as one of my favorite writers. More damning towards my impartiality, perhaps, is the fact that I also actually worked on the film. As a segment producer, I had the opportunity to look at most of the interviews with Ellison myself -- and if the finished film hadn’t managed to put them together in a way that was both entertaining and accurate, I’d be the first... no, make that the second, after Ellison (who’s no stranger to complaining, let me tell you...), to level some harsh criticism -- fortunately there’s no need to. In presenting the man, Ellison is neither sugar-coated nor demonized; he’s contentious, at times abrasive, and quick to dominate any conversation he enters into; but he also has great integrity, the courage of his own convictions, and in the end, a considerable amount of compassion for his fellow man (well..., some of them, at any rate). And if he is at times quick to pummel others with his considerable verbal skill, ... well -- at least he has the courtesy to make his comments entertaining as all get out. If you’re going to be skewered, it might as well be done with style; and Ellison never fails on that front.

       Dreams With Sharp Teeth has yet to find “official” distribution, but having made the rounds on the festival circuit to mostly positive reviews, it seems to be creeping through the major markets. It opens at NYC’s Film Forum on June 4th, and plays for a week. After that... ? It seems likely that it will receive some sort of distribution on DVD or perhaps on one of the networks. Check the sidebar for future updates.

Next post -- 06/22/08

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


       This blog-post is a two-fer. First up is some porn -- Oh, I know what you’re thinking; it was only a matter of time before this thing turned XXX (although those who’ve been reading as far back as this entry know that I’m not going into uncharted territory here). But being as this particular skin flick stars Isabella Rossellini (an actress whose degree of comfort with on-screen nudity is only exceeded by my desire to see it) and details the sex-lives of insects, it seems like something worth writing a few words about. Green Porno is a web-series found on The Sundance Channel site; each brief segment (just a minute or two in length) spotlights a different insect (or some such small slimy creature -- both earthworms and snails have been featured) usually portrayed by Ms. Rossellini herself; dressed in a charmingly theatrical insect-costume -- like something you’ d see in a grade-school play. She delivers a brief monologue on the copulatory habits of said creature -- acting it out with the aid of props and sometimes other actors as well. Peculiarly, Ms. Rossellini almost always opts to be the male participant in this bug hardcore. An amusing quirk on her part...? -- perhaps...

       Isabella is the daughter of actress Ingrid Bergman and neo-realist Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini. Towards the end of his career, the cinema-vérité style fell from favor, and he turned his camera towards the documentation of animals and sea-life -- essentially for purposes of scientific research. This perhaps explains her choice of subject matter; but not her offbeat, downright eccentric presentation of the sex-lives of these creatures -- straightforward scientific facts are freely mixed with anthropomorphic musings as to how the insects must think and feel about their frankly bizarre intercourse practices. And she seems to delight in emphasizing the supposedly “kinky” aspects of the bugs’ matings; It’s too lascivious to be a fourth-grade biology filmstrip, but also contains too much genuine scientific lore to qualify as a true blue-film either. All the same, these shorts are good, kooky fun -- and brief enough to appreciate as just that, especially if you find the host charming -- which I must admit, I do (personally, I could watch Isabella Rossellini recite the New York phone book and be entertained at some level). Besides, where else are you going to see a film revolving around the fact that the male bee has a detachable penis?

       Let’s get something out of the way, right off the bat -- Postal is not a good film -- by any stretch of the imagination -- but still bears examining... however briefly. Directed by Uwe Boll; a personage better known for his willingness to spar with his critics than for the quality of his own films. A filmmaker so widely regarded as terrible that petitions -- signed by thousands -- have been drafted to demand his retirement from filmmaking. So when a self-admitted hack of this caliber decides to make what he describes as “the first post-9/11 comedy”, it seems prudent to at least survey the damage done. Like all of Boll’s other films, Postal is a video-game adaptation -- this time, a game that centers around the killing spree of a man so fed up with the frustrations of the modern-day world that he decides to go “postal” -- and the slaughter ensues. Inserted into this premise are sub-plots about a terrorist attack engineered by Osama Bin-Laden and George Bush; a ridiculous dooms-day religious cult; and an assassination attempt on Boll himself -- and of course, our “hero’s” (Zack Ward) murderous rampage is an attempt to stop all these elements from coming to a head.

       Postal may be the first of Boll’s films to garner any amount of positive critical acclaim (not much, but some); it seems to be an attempt at a Dr. Strangelove-style black comedy, but falls short of that mark by a long shot -- it’s not even up to the level of Team America: World Police on that front. That being said, the film has its occasional funny moments -- not clever-funny; Boll pretty consistently fails at that over the course of the movie -- but slap-stick-y funny, at least in fits and starts -- if only because of the presence of talented comic actors like Dave Foley and J.K. Simmons. Boll is self-distributing the film in a "limited release" (mostly midnight shows and “special” screenings) as I write this; supposedly because it’s “too controversial” for the major distributors to touch; and while he does push some political hot buttons here and there, had he done so more consistently -- and with some genuine wit -- I think one of the major labels would have picked it up. It’s a mildly diverting oddity -- as if John Waters, on an off day, had decided to make a political satire -- but nothing to rush out to see in a theater; it can wait for that inevitable, late-night, insomnia-induced cable viewing, I think -- which is more than one could say about any of Boll’s other films, I might add.

Next post -- 06/02/08

Friday, May 2, 2008


       The staunch cinema enthusiast, upon walking into a movie theater (or sliding that DVD into a set-top player), is usually looking for a new experience, presented within a familiar context -- which is to say, a display of novelty, imaginativeness, and invention; but played out within the familiar framework of an established genre. Most films hailed by critics as “totally original” or “strikingly different” fall into this category -- they add a few atypical elements to some well-worn story-line, and voilá! The entire film feels fresh and new and different. Blue Velvet comes to mind here; upon first viewing, a friend of mine found it so weird that he “couldn’t follow it” -- but when you look at the film, plot-point by plot-point, it’s a pretty straightforward mystery (albeit with some peculiar and unsavory elements). So, when a movie comes along that is really different -- not just “quirky” (as, let’s say, Napoleon Dynamite is), nor simply with an “unexpected”, but more often predictable, plot-twist (The Sixth Sense anyone?) -- it often goes unnoticed; simply because critics and audiences don’t have a previously-established context into which to place it. Such I think is the case with Todd Rohal’s The Guatemalan Handshake -- it’s easily one of the best and most creative films I’ve seen this year; yet for the most part, its just slipped past everyone’s notice.

       The Guatemalan Handshake is an episodic film that doesn’t easily lend itself to a brief synopsis -- but all the same, here’s a stab at it. After a major electrical blackout accidentally instigated by power plant employee and ne’er-do-well, Stool (Rich Schreiber), the lives of the residents of a small Pennsylvania town are all thrown into various degrees of disarray. Mr. Turnupseed’s beloved car goes missing; Ethel Firecracker’s dog run runs away from home; and most mysterious of all, Donald Turnupseed (Will Oldham), part-time demolition derby driver and full-time misanthrope, vanishes without a trace, leaving his pregnant girlfriend Sadie without a father for her unborn child -- and prompting his best friend, 10 year-old Turkeylegs, to start her own search for his whereabouts. The film meanders through the lives of these characters as they attempt to deal with these problems -- and culminates at the yearly demolition derby, where things don’t exactly come to a head; but nonetheless some of the characters -- and myself, I have to admit -- do arrive at some sort of epiphany.

       It’s tempting to call The Guatemalan Handshake a “literary” sort of a film -- its low-key, understated narrative reminds me of some of the stories of Haruki Murakami or David Foster Wallace (a writer who I must admit I don’t much care for; he’s clearly a talented wordsmith, but his stories always seems to revolve around nothing in particular). The movie uses a variety of styles over its course; documentary-style interviews (with individuals who I strongly suspect are not actors, but just plain ol’ citizens of Dillsburg, PA -- where the film was shot); music-video style interludes; black-and-white, fable-like stories within the context of the larger story. Unlike many films taken from literary sources, The Guatemalan Handshake, doesn’t rely too heavily upon its dialogue; it’s more about what you’re seeing in front of you, and the order in which said events are presented, I think. I suppose, like some literary works, the film ultimately seems driven by neither plot nor character, but by some sort of internal scheme or view of the universe; and appreciating the film seems as much a matter of getting in tune with that agenda, as anything else.

       The Guatemalan Handshake has just become available on DVD, in a 2-disc set that includes some amusing short films and featurettes from the cast and crew. The film never received a wide theatrical release, but still makes the occasional festival appearance or special engagement. You can buy or rent the DVD through the usual sources. I recommend it as highly as any film I’ve seen this year so far -- which’ll probably cause as many of you to steer clear of it as take a look... -- oh well, your loss.

Some links:

Another trailer for The Guatemalan Handshake.

A scene from the movie -- please note that The Guatemalan Handshake was completed before the film Juno even started production.

A short film by Todd Rohal, Sweaty Salesman.

Next post -- 05/16/08

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Spring '08 Trailer Round-Up

       Spring is here -- and has been for going on three weeks now -- so we’re long overdue for another seasonal trailer round-up. After a typically slow late winter movie season, things are definitely picking up as we move into the second quarter of the year. As such, it’s time to bring you, dear reader, a sampling of film previews that you won’t find on Apple’s download page.

       Regular readers will know that Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case, Brain Damage, Frankenhooker) is a favorite director of mine, and now -- after a more than 15 year absence from filmmaking -- he’s back with a new feature film to shock -- and most likely disgust -- but also entertain us as well. Bad Biology tells the tale of star-crossed lovers, Tom and Jennifer, who have some unique problems to overcome if they’re going make their relationship work; if you want to know more, take a look at the trailer -- I’ll warn you though, it’s NSFW (Not Safe For Work); actually, I don’t think it’s safe for viewing anywhere, really... Bad Biology has already screened in Germany, Philie, and NYC -- and while I’m not quite sure it will get an “official theatrical release” anywhere, any time soon, look for special, festival, and midnight screenings starting this spring and continuing throughout the summer.

       So Guy Maddin has a new film coming out, a self-described “docu-tasia” about the filmmaker’s native city called My Winnipeg. Despite my best efforts to track down a trailer, I have yet to dig one up -- however, if you go here, you can watch a brief clip from the movie -- yes, it looks great! No, don’t argue with me, It’s Clearly Great!! IT POSSESSES GREATNESS I TELL YOU!!! Now that my unbiased appraisal of a film that I haven’t actually seen yet is through, let me tell you that My Winnipeg receives a general release June 13. You will all go see it... Oh, yes -- you will!

       Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead -- now, with a title like that, do I really need to say anything more? At any rate, this latest offering from writer / director / con-man Lloyd Kaufman has been touted by many reviewers as a return-to-form for Troma pictures (in case you didn’t know, the leading producer/distributor of exploitation/trash filmmaking in the late 70’s and 80’s direct-to-video market). Now, of course, a “return-to-form” for Troma can only mean approximately 85 minutes of completely repellant, low-brow, potty humor -- mixed with equal amounts of gore and T&A; not something you (or me, at this point) would want to make a steady diet of... -- yet curiously satisfying on a warm spring night -- especially after the consumption of a half-dozen beers or so. Poultrygeist -- which has been completed for over a year now and has screened in any number of festival and “special” events (which just goes to show that any production company can achieve legitimacy just by sticking around long enough) -- finally goes into “official release” May 9th in NYC, and June 13th in Los Angeles; dates in other cities to follow, assuming the audience doesn’t rise up and burn all the existing prints.

       Harminy Korine has made a couple of so-so films and one certifiable work of genius in the form of Gummo, so a new film from him is always worth a look. His latest, Mister Lonely is another oddball tale of alienated outsiders -- this time celebrity impersonators -- trying to find their way in the world. Werner Herzog -- a great director and a very capable actor (and having met him, I can accurately say a pleasant fellow, as well) appears, as does the always fetching Samantha Morton (as a Marilyn Monroe impersonator -- good casting decision there!). The film opens May 2nd.

       The Foot Fist Way is a film I’ve been hearing things -- good things -- about for over a year now. It’s a comedy about a North Carolina “dojo master” who runs a martial arts training center -- an unlikely idea for a film perhaps, but apparently executed with enough skill to attract the attention of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay (Anchorman, amongst many others) to act as the films’ executive producers -- stepping in to arrange distribution for the film after surreptitiously receiving and viewing a tape of the already-completed project. The trailer looks funny enough, and upon moving to Florida after a childhood raised in NYC, I can say that I’ve met -- and even befriended -- my fair share of “Fred Simmons”. Their story should be told! ... and it will, starting May 30th.

       And finally, releasing on DVD May 27th, is the Alexander Korda production of The Thief of Bagdad -- this is a favorite film of mine, and must rank amongst one of my most-often-viewed when I was a kid (I think I watched it every time it appeared on channel 11 in New York). It’s a great film, and since it’s being released by Criterion, the DVD is bound to be stellar as well. The film stars Sabu and Conrad Veidt (as the bad guy -- of course), and was co-directed by Michael Powell -- a brit who made his name directing a series of films with Emeric Pressburger, under the collective name of The Archers. Here he shows as sure a hand at Action / Fantasy as he does with the Comedy / Dramas that made him famous. If you haven’t seen it, it should immediately go on the “must-rent” list.

Also of note, the previously globbed-about The Tracey Fragments receives its U.S. roll-out May 9th.

Next post -- 04/25/08

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


       One of cinema’s most appealing qualities is -- assuming the story is really exposited visually -- that it can be appreciated by all, no matter what country or culture they hail from. It’s the truly universal art-form: free of the restrictions imposed by language, age or education-level. That being said, every culture has its own unique stories and story-telling tropes -- comprehensible to natives of said society, but sometimes cryptic-seeming to outsiders. It’s easy enough to understand how someone from the plateaus of Tibet, or the icy vistas of Siberia could appreciate an iconic American action film like Stagecoach or a slapstick comedy like The Gold Rush -- but what would they make of Eraserhead? Or Being John Malkovich? Or, heck, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, for that matter? Once you move beyond the most basic, iconic genres and story-lines, the transparency of the cinematic form begins to obscure -- and of course, this cuts both ways. Films from foreign lands almost always seem a bit different, possessing a kind of “other-ness”, to us Americans. This is all the more true of cultures outside of the Western, European tradition -- even more so when the film in question is at the periphery of that alien society’s mainstream. And that lengthy preamble goes a long way towards categorizing -- if not actually explaining -- a film like Funky Forest: The First Contact.

       I think it’s easier to unpack what this film is, by making clear what it is not -- It is not a “three-act playlet with a dramatic resolution” -- it’s more like a series of inter-connected short films that all revolve the same central characters: three young women who all share the same flat, and their prospective beaus, three young men known as “The Guitar Bros.” -- this is their title, despite the fact that two are Japanese and the third clearly a gaijin. In addition, all these characters interact with a host of bizarre alien creatures who claim to be from the Planet Piko-riko; although it’s a little unclear if these events are “actually” taking place, -- or just part of some sort of collective day-dream. It’s also not a musical -- although the film has a dozen or more musical “numbers”; but to call it a “musical”, the “numbers” would have to advance the plot in some way or another -- and since Funky Forest doesn’t have anything that could conventionally be called a “storyline”, pigeon-holing it in that way just doesn’t quite hold up. It’s more like a playful set of humorous sketches, complete with music video interludes and a really bizarre sci-fi sub-plot. None of these descriptions quite do the film justice; the more I think about it, the more I have to just regard it as one of the flat-out weirdest cinematic experiences I’ve ever had -- but not an unentertaining one, I might add.

       Funky Forest is the collective effort of three Japanese directors, the best known of whom, Katsuhito Ishii, also directed the sublime The Taste of Tea -- a far more conventional film (overall...); but a film similarly concerned with the quiet moments that occur between the high points of “drama” -- introspective moments, that when put together, are as valid a way of telling a story as any, I think. The overall tone of Funky Forest is light and silly; but the zaniness frequently occurs between characters and creatures that are as bizarre and unsettling as anything you’ll see in David Cronenbergs’ adaptation of Naked Lunch. Most likely the movies episodes will make you smile, at least some -- but you might feel a little queasy as well. Funky Forest apparently has quite the “cult status” in its native Japan, causing some to refer to it as the Nipponese “Rocky Horror” -- but the camp pleasures of Rocky Horror seem tame in comparison. A film like Forbidden Zone or the more recent The American Astronaut makes for a more apt comparison.

       Funky Forest: The First Contact gets a region 1 DVD release Tuesday, March 18th. This edition isn’t dubbed -- but includes sub-titles and a “making-of” featurette -- which will go a ways towards making it “understandable”; but still, I suspect, far from comprehensible.

Next post -- 04/04/08

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Slammin' the lid on the coffin . . .

       On more than one occasion, I’ve jokingly referred to this blog as being, not so much a source of film criticism, but rather more of a P.S.A. -- of information that nobody is really looking for in the first place, most likely. This week, however, that statement is almost not a joke: undoubtedly many of you have noticed the astoundingly low prices advertised on HD-DVD players and discs of late. There’s a reason for this sudden plunge in prices; and a reason why you should not -- under any circumstances -- buy one. The reason is this: the HD-format war is over, and Blu-ray has won -- but that won’t stop manufacturers from trying to unload their backlog of players and discs on you, the unwitting consumer.

       For those not in the know, a brief re-cap. Approximately 3 years ago, Sony and Toshiba both introduced their competing and not-compatible-with-one-another high-definition video formats: Blu-ray and HD-DVD, respectively. Manufacturers knew from the git-go that conventional DVD’s storage capacity was inadequate for encoding high-definition video -- so, the need for a replacement format was imminent. Toshiba’s attempt, HD-DVD, had the benefits of being cheap to produce and backwards compatible with existing DVD technology. Sony’s more advanced blu-ray format has a greater storage capacity and a more robust dynamic rewriting schema, making it a better choice for computer and gaming applications -- but won't play conventional DVDs. At first, The major studios were evenly divided in their support of the formats -- but late last year, Warner Bros. decided to support Blu-ray exclusively; slowly but surely, all the other studios followed suit -- until, on February 19th of this year, Toshiba announced that they would no longer manufacture HD-DVD discs or players -- effectively rendering the format obsolete, even though there are still a few other manufacturers out there who have yet to give up the ghost. But with the creator of the format abandoning it, we can safely say that HD-DVD has gone the way of 8-track tapes, floppy discs and Betamax -- to an early grave.

       Of course, we’re all -- including gadget-loving, early-adopter me -- still watching most of our video-tainment via conventional DVD; and will for many years to come, as the advantages of any Hi-Def format are only noticeable on large (I would say at least 42”), widescreen, High-Definition monitors (at least 720p, but ideally 1080p resolution); and how many of us own those? Well, I do, but I’m “in the biz” as they say, so it’s justified. Even so, even my very nice plasma display (purchased about 4 years ago) is already obsolete. It isn’t capable of displaying the highest high definition signals, and is not compliant with the D.R.M. instituted on all high-def formats (known as HDCP); this is not a problem with displays made within the last two years or so; such are the risks of the early-adopter. At any rate, those of you who staunchly refuse to move forward into this brave, new high-resolution world need not fear. Conventional DVD’s are too easy and cheap to manufacture -- and ergo too attractive to both consumer and manufacturer alike -- to allow for their demise any time soon. And by the time DVD’s do become obsolete, you’ll be able to “rip” them -- as we all do with CD’s nowadays -- and store them on what will undoubtedly be a multi-Terabyte hard-drive.

       So what does this all mean for you, dear reader? First off, don’t buy that $99.00 HD-DVD player from Best Buy -- unless you feel like watching the same thirty movies over and over again. Two, feel free to continue to buy DVDs, if you’re so inclined; the format still has a decade or two worth of life to it, if only because consumers will not warm up to the merits -- or cost -- of Blu-ray all that quickly. Three, if you don’t like the idea of a new video format at all, take heart. Many analysts seem to feel the real future of video-tainment is in downloading, as many of us already do with music and audiobook purchases. Having watched a few downloads from Apple’s video store, I can say that the quality is pretty darned good -- especially on their HD offerings -- and as the cost of multi-giga and tera-byte hard-drives comes down, that option is looking more attractive than buying another set of bookshelves that I don’t have room for in my apartment.

Next post -- 03/14/08

Monday, February 18, 2008


       When you’re writing a blog devoted to “the more obscure outlying reaches of cinema”, you come to accept that there are just certain types of films you won’t get the opportunity to pontificate upon. Popular film genres just don’t tend to lend themselves to the restrictions of smaller-scale, lower-budgeted, unconventional movie-making; and independent filmmakers tend to want to establish their own conventions, rather than work within previously established genres (Wes Anderson, for example). So when Japan’s most prolific contemporary filmmaker decides to make a movie within the Action/Adventure genre -- a Superhero film, no less; and arguably, -- in structure, at least -- a kid’s movie as well... -- well, this blogger feels the need to pay some attention. And while it’s by no means his best film, Zebraman is certainly a worthy addition to Takashi Miike’s ever-growing body of work.

       Elementary schoolteacher Shinichi Ichikawa is a bit of a sad-sack and more than a bit of a bumbler. His co-worker’s like him well enough, but don’t exactly respect him; and his family seems to tolerate him, but not exactly look up to him. Which is probably why they don’t even bat an eye -- or really even much notice -- when he takes to sewing his own costume of his favorite childhood television superhero: Zebraman. Ichikawa befriends a handicapped transfer student, Asano, who shares his love of the long since cancelled Zebraman TV series. They discover that the events related in the series seem to be occurring -- for real -- in their own small village. At the same time, Ichikawa has taken to walking the streets at night in his somewhat crudely-assembled Zebraman costume; but much more inexplicably, he has also started to show signs of manifesting Zebraman’s extraordinary “abilities”. That’s the “set-up” for the film, and if it sounds fairly ridiculous... -- well, you’ll get no argument from me.

       In addition to being the most prolific, Takashi Miike is easily Japan’s most protean filmmaker as well, having made a score of ”Yakuza” (read: “Gangster”) pictures, a number of Horror films (the much-better-than-its-awful-American-remake, One Missed Call; the excellent and previously blogged about Audition); A musical; an elegiac Art-house piece; A bizarre Lynch-ian melodrama and any of a number of period pieces set at various points during the history of feudal Japan. If you give points for sheer variety of styles attempted, than few filmmakers -- from any country of origin -- can outscore Miike. The common threads running through all of his films include a sly, absurdist sense of humor; a tendency to break away from the conventions of “genre”, even when he’s making a film that ostensibly fits the mold; and a willingness to portray a level of graphic violence that would undoubtedly cause some of you, dear readers, to run screaming from the theater. That being said, Zebraman is pretty mild on that front; although, take what I said about it being a “kid’s movie” with a grain of salt -- not too many films for children start with a scene in which one character suggests to another that he “upgrade to a better class of prostitute”.

       This brief scene -- featuring Zebraman and Zebra-Nurse -- gives some idea of the screwball appeal of the film. It becomes available on region 1 DVD this Tuesday, and is a pretty good intro to the work of Japan’s most notorious contemporary filmmaker. Now excuse me, I have some sewing I need to attend to...

Next post -- 02/29/08

Saturday, February 9, 2008


       As if it wasn’t obvious enough from the posts themselves, let me plainly state that I don’t really consider this blog a forum for “film criticism”. While I’ve read my fair share of Bazin and Kracauer, there are other online sites (a few of which you’ll find in the links sidebar to your right) that do a fine job of "critiquing"; better than I could, even if I were inclined to do so. That being said, the subject of this week’s post immediately brought to mind my favorite volume of scholarly cinematic lore -- Bruce Kawin’s Mindscreen. Kawin’s theories are a little difficult to summarize, but they basically boil down to the idea that some films (some of Bergman’s, like Persona, for example; almost everything by Godard; but also some less elitist fare, like Duck Amuck), present themselves to the viewer, not as a “story”; related to us as a second or third-hand account of events; but rather as a first-person representation of a mind -- as if we had a mirror held up to the consciousness, not of the filmmaker -- but of the film itself. Mind you, only certain films benefit from being regarded in this manner; but speaking for myself I can see no other way, to interpret -- or even appreciate -- a film like this week’s object of inquiry: Nuit Noire (”Black Night “).

       Nuit Noire concerns one Oscar, an entomologist at a Natural History Museum who spends his days cataloging insects. I use the word “days” figuratively here, as the film takes place in a setting where the sun shines for, at most, a few minutes -- sometimes just a few seconds -- every 24 hours. Oscar sees a therapist to deal with some troubling issues from his childhood; issues which seem to revolve around the death of a sibling (or childhood friend, perhaps?), whilst on a family outing in Africa -- although the nature of said incident is never explicitly made clear. A female museum attendant of African descent insists to Oscar that she is his sister, and one evening he arrives home to find her in his apartment, in his bed -- and ill. Fearing for her life -- and scandal -- if he attempts to move her, Oscar reluctantly allows her to stay. And that’s as much as you need know.

       The synopsis given above is a very much truncated -- and quite frankly, streamlined for purposes of clarity -- summary of the events which play out in the first third of the film. Nuit Noire is more a series of episodes that revolve around a theme (or a couple of themes, I suppose) than a traditional 3-act movie playlet. The film contains flashbacks, flash-forwards, scenes that take place only in the mind of the protagonist, and other scenes, I suspect, that only take place in the “mind” of the film itself. Like Lynch’s I N L A N D    E M P I R E, Nuit Noire isn’t really designed to be grasped on a rational level; it’s of the same genus as the work of the early surrealist filmmakers -- a kind of cinema where you’re given no answers, but the questions are so beautifully and compellingly presented, you can’t help but be mesmerized by them.

       Nuit Noire is the first feature-length film from Belgian artist Olivier Smolders. While it is available on DVD, It has, in fact never received an official theatrical release here in the U.S. -- partly because, I’m certain, it’s not really a “film”, at all. The movie was shot in HD; and rather than a murky, grainy “look” to it (as you might expect, given the dark subject matter of the piece), it has a vibrant, colorful, crisp aspect and feel to it; something I’ve come to expect -- and even look forward to -- from the many shot-on-HD movies that have been released in the last couple of years.

Some links:

The official website for the movie.

A trailer for a collection of short films by Olivier Smolders: Spiritual Exercises.

Next post -- 02/15/08

Friday, February 1, 2008


       With the Academy Awards presentations less than a month from today, now is as good a time as any to discuss some of the nominated films; except that, -- as I’m sure you’d be quick to point out, dear reader -- Academy Award nominated movies don’t exactly fit the profile of Cinema Obscura; supposedly what this blog is all about, or so I’ve led you to believe. But while the major categories of the Oscars certainly don’t intersect with the avowed purpose of this blog all that much, some of the minor awards might -- not just any minor award, though. An entire post regarding the Award of Commendation that the Academy is giving out this year (To Jonathan Erland, apparently; in "recognition of his leadership and efforts toward identifying and solving the problem of High-Speed Emulsion Stress Syndrome in motion picture film stock") might make interesting reading... -- to some; most likely not to regular readers of this blog, however. On the other hand, an award category like “Animated Short Film” might fit the bill -- why, yes, I think it does! So without further ado... ladies and gentlemen, mademoiselles and messieurs, allow me to present... Madame Tutli-Putli !

       As its nominating category would imply, the film is a short; animated in the pain-stakingly slow-to-create stop-motion style. It’s brief -- just a little over seventeen minutes in length -- and concerns a woman, and what must be all of her belongings, taking a train ride to some undisclosed destination. She shares her cabin-berth with several fellow passengers; all of whom are endowed with some varying degree of grotesquerie. She makes an effort to establish contact with most of them, but ultimately withdraws from any such attempts, into her own musings. Feeling cut off from her fellows, her isolation is made all the more unbearable when she notices some strange goings-on outside the train... and that’s as much as I’ll say.

       The film’s style is reminiscent of the work of the Bros. Quay -- but with a new, computer-processor-driven wrinkle. While the puppets are all animated in the conventional stop-motion fashion, the characters eyes -- and movement thereof -- are all taken from actual, human actors; and digitally composited onto the puppets countenances. It’s a subtle, eerie effect; one that lends the puppets a greater dimension of emotion and depth -- of humanness, if you will. The film itself has more style than substance to it; but it’s a very impressive style, and there are many images from the film that stay with you; even if they don’t quite all add up to a cohesive whole. Madame Tutli-Putli is not, I think, a better film than my favorite animated short from 2007 -- but since that wasn’t nominated (more a matter of Hollywood politics than an issue of worthiness, I suspect), I’m betting Tutli-Putli will garner this years award -- if only for its level of technical achievement.

       You can buy a DVD copy of Madame Tutli-Putli directly from the producers of the film, the National Film Board of Canada, for a rather pricey (given the movie’s brief running time) $14.95. Fortunately for us cheapskates, it’s also available as a download from iTunes for a mere $1.99! At that meager cost, it’s worth the ticket price.

Some links:

Madame Tutli-Putli official website

Finding Madame Tutli-Putli, a short, behind-the-scenes film about “casting” the movie.

Animating Madame Tutli-Putli, a short, behind-the-scenes film about the making of the animation.

Next post -- 02/08/08