Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception, for your aghast befuddlement

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Best of 2018 (Movies and TV)


Here's the list and if this intro is shorter than usual, just note that there's less and less to write about as far as unity of direction and theme in cinema as a whole, the line is so spread out thanks to streaming there's almost no way to get the whole picture. Titles proliferate faster than any one critic may see. The working professional (i.e. currently paid) critics get the screeners for the Oscar bids or go to press screenings, but for the rest of us, if we're no longer getting paid to see them, why would we even want to? Those of us with the right Hendrixian 'experience' prefer films that take the trappings of genre and twist them all up in to groovy, psychedelic tie-dye twists that then become a steep Eisentstein-Rosencrantz bridge deep into the heavy mystic. As Jim once sang, blowsy and belting: "tell all the people that you see: follow me.... follow me down!" OK Nation, world, let's goooo.

#1: (a Nic Cage Tie): 
MANDY
Dir Panos Cosmatos

Saturated in a druggy wash of deep reds and dark blacks there's so much beauty in every composition of this sludge rock vengeance masterpiece as to deserve a painted mirror you might win on the Seaside Heights boardwalk back in 1983, when you're an impressionable 14 year-old so every Frazetta cover blazes with aliveness. 1983 is also when this set, and deep in some magical forest deep in the Shadow Mountains... Cage is a lumberjack living in a very groovy pad with his artist wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). Happy as could be, they live as any of us might, eating dinner while agog in front of the TV, telling weird Erik Estrada knock-knock jokes, and rowing out to the center of the glassy lake out back --perfectly in tune and in trippy love, all captured in dreamy dissolves. Naturally a bunch of crazy acidhead Manson-esque Jesus freaks show up and... well... soon enough Nic has plenty of reason to go on a bizarro drug-fueled killing spree.



Throughout Cosmatos detours into sludgy canvasses of deep red and black, which if it's your favorite color combination as it is mine, you will love this sludgy film. In one of countless great choices, Cosmatos foregoes the usual heavy metal or hard rock classic soundtrack, aside from an unforgettable opening title set to "Starless and Bible Black" by King Crimson. The great, dearly departed Johan Johannson score lays a deep abstract Carpenter carpet underneath the wildness, occasionally going over the deep end as when Red (Cage) samples the jar of Black Rider grey jelly, a kind of super psycho-meth that hits him as instantly and crazily as any ever. As with Cosmatos' iconic debut Beyond the Black Rainbow, your familiarity with 70s-80s Canadian horror and sci-fi films, novels and heavy metal album covers, and mind-bending drugs isn't needed, but it sure helps. Add Cage at his wildest, and badass behavior from both him and Mandy in the face of pure evil and this movie leaps right over the... two moons?! This movie, I tell ya. The whole revenge of one simple man with chainsaw skills on a one-man druggie vendetta against Manson-esque Jesus freaks (and their demon allies) may not be terribly new, but what Cosmatos does is far more ballsy than just adding dour self-importance of social messaging, he brings in the supernatural in a way more holistic and connected than, say, Lynch does in Twin Peaks; The Return. And best of all, does the slow weird meaning-tentacled abstraction of strong psychedelic drugs better than any other working director today, x 2
(see full review: Acid-Etched Damascus)

MOM AND DAD
Dir. Brian Taylor

There's an ingeniously simple, savage, disturbing premise to this wild satire that basically sends a cold shot of Drano-laced meth up the IV tube that's been keeping suburban tract home 2.5 children family bliss/stasis stabilized with cheap corn sugar glucose nigh these 70 odd years (since the dawn of the suburbs at the close of WW2). Tapping into a kind of unspoken universal American rage but reversing the flow (instead of protecting children from harm, etc.) Nicolas Cage is letter perfect as the weirdo dad, and Selma Blair is a whole extra book of revelations as the spin class nervous breakdown mom and it's always nice when Lance Henriksen shows up, giving everyone--even crazy Cage--a lesson in balls-out crazy lunge-for-the-jug style acting. Best is the real-time single 24-hour time frame of events, the way--as in  the roots of what's going on are never overtly spelled out (beginning with the super weird early and confusing evacuation of school). I haven't enjoyed a movie this much since, well, ever. Mr. Bill's unruly industrial clatter/whoosh score keeps everything rolling with seven layers of ominous adrenalin. Director Brian Taylor is the nutcase who gave us Crank and Crank 2: High-Voltage in case you're wondering how he got so good at lunatic real-time mayhem and blacker-than-the-anti-sun comedy. He and Nic Cage were made for each other, as they already proved in the 2012 guilty pleasure Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance!   I mean, just look at Cage in the pic there, have you ever seen a man crazier? He's right up there with Toni Collette in Hereditary as far as new high water mark level of nuts, which, in our Trumpian post-wasteland, I think more than sums up the tenor of the time.

3. HEREDITARY
Dir. Ari Aster

Successfully goes where others have only tried, namely the whole "is there a difference between inherited bi-polar manic depression, and literal matriarchal conspiracies of witches?" There's room for both answers in all the best films on the subject, like Rosemary's Baby, and even the ones that are only partly successful (House of the Devil, The WitchLords of Salem). The subject--when examined right--treads so close to the line where acute perception--reality stripped of its facade--becomes paranoid schizophrenic insanity that it's very easy to forget which side of it you're on. Living with a person suffering from such a problem, always teetering over the edge, is truly unnerving. Thanks to a terrifyingly vivid performance by Toni Collette (the most tragically scary mother in a horror film since Essie Davis in The Babadook) we get just how tragic and extra-deep that rabbit hole vortex goes.


It's funny to read all the backlash from critics, after being bombarded with high expectations comparing it to The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby (I think it's actually better than the former). The other backlash comes from people espousing how traumatized they are by seeing certain people of certain ages having certain bad things happen to them onscreen (no spoilers!).  The set-up for Hereditary's big early-inning shock is so subtle and deflective we feel the way audiences must have felt the first time seeing Psycho.

The weird thing is that none of this stuff seems at all gratuitous or even sadistic - it's all leading to a certain place and every chill is earned. This is no 90 minute thrill ride but a solid legitimately rich character study that marks the crossroads between mental illness and its effects on families and the way paranoia about witchcraft and life after death can both exacerbate these effects, cause them as a kind of side effect, or just be the cover story devils have used since time immemorial. Is devil worship a system created out of our brain's compulsive need to find hidden systems and motivations that explain away the random events of nature and our tiny place in it? Or has a life of being manipulated by Satanic forces left us insane? Rosemary's Baby explored these same questions but, as that film's dream sequence reminded us, it left a whole ocean unexplored, with enough unsounded depth to make a dozen such voyages as full of terrifying epiphany and 'take-away' madness as the first.

Best of all is the way Aster clearly gets what's wrong with modern horror films--the overly detailed horror make-ups and unearned shocks with bombastic mickey mouse music cues, and eliminates it all. Watching Halloween again for the first time in a few years I especially noticed that during the whole extended climax - the single note ominous repeating 'dun... dun.... dun..." during the closet upstairs sequence for example, is preceded by a whole downstairs thing with no music whatsoever! The silence is more terrifying than any movie could be, and I wondered how overbearing a modern orchestral score would have made that sequence, feeling all our fear for us like a micro-managing den mother. The climax of Hereditary is right up there and a reminder of the effectiveness of silence as well as music: Colin Stetson's score underlies this with weird eerie drones, sparing but unremitting... other horror film composers should take a mighty heed. (see also: Hereditary Witchcraft Reader)

4. THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND
Dir. Orson Welles (w/ Peter Bogdanovich)

Thanks to the more decisive, less debilitatingly brilliant, mind of long-time Welles' friend and biographer, director Peter Bogdanovich, and state-of-the-art digital remastering, the last unfinished Welles film about the last day in the life of a Wellesian director working on his last, unfinished film is finally.... well, finished. What makes it even more meta is that Peter Bogdanovich plays such a key character in the film, as more or less himself, and he finished it, with John Huston filling in for Orson. Together they seem to be working through the angles of male friendship, biographer-subject, father-son, remora-shark, fan-hero, and apostle-Christ --which suits the unique nature of the finished product so well it seems like fate--like the ultimate metatextual Welles flourish, as if he knew the film couldn't be finished until long enough after he died that Bogdanovich could use digital means to clean-up the film stock and have the chutzpah to tackle such a mammoth project. It may be Bogdanovich's best film as well as one of Welles's, with film quality and sound are so good it's hard to imagine this wasn't all filmed a few months ago -it's actually better than new, even, since it's on film - and every frame is lovingly color-saturated or otherwise cleaned up to the point it all shines better than any new dime. As the Welles-like director, Huston is another great meta-choice, for he--like Welles--was a raconteur genius working outside/inside the system. And when he discusses having boxed with Hemingway etc we know we're getting a fair dose of himself (for Welles never boxed, obviously). And it's no easy feat to play a high-functioning alcoholic at a party surrounded by sycophants and needy technicians wondering what they're getting paid for and when they will be, over years and years when it's all set in one night. So fractured it's set to the rhythms of a crowded moveable feast party like few I've seen, sustaining itself at a glib raconteur height Altman only reached a few times in his whole oeuvre. Especially as Huston gets progressively drunker and more belligerent, it transcends narrative and dating in a way that makes similar films--8 1/2 for example, seem horribly mawkish and antiquated.

As in that film, we realize much of a director's life is spent being hounded by underlings--writers, make-up artists, personal assistants, young girl intern/eye candy/drink getters, and sycophants galore, all wanting to either get on or stay on his good side and/or payroll. Swirling in and around a 70th birthday party that involves screening the director's unfinished, very artsy and psychedelic late 60s hippie movie (the kind of thing neither Welles nor Huston would ever do, presumably) on the one hand, and the movie itself on the other (and for the end, a fatal intersection of the two), The Other Side is a relentless attention grabber, full of blink-and-miss clever edits, guns, mannequins, and retorts zippy enough that by the time you untangle their genius, three more have passed you by.

The film-within-the-film is harder to peg. Certainly it's definitive Welles--with deep focus Dali-esque compositions reminiscent of passages in Welles' Othello but--especially during the psychedelic stretch of film that finds the heroine in a deserted train station in the desert, then a rainy street at night, a psychedelic rock club bathroom, and subsequent getting it on in a car in the rain with no music but the sound of the wipers and the clack of her bead neckless against her breasts as she gyrated atop this beautiful but similarly mute boy. With all the brilliant, lovingly restored colors, the sequence, lasting well over 15 minutes, is a marvel all its own evoking, of all things, Amer's co-directors Helen Cattet and Bruno Forzani with its intelligently arranged sequence of open-ended surrealist imagery.ich in rich Suspiria colors. With its tail of a beautiful blank looking boy feebly following a Cher-like Native American woman--unsmiling and dead-eyed throughout--the dour mood of dream-like student film art-for-art's sake seems to be almost mocking Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, yet is so rife with Welles' signature expressionist style it kind of takes off anyway. We certainly can't blame Welles for wanting 'in' on this new type of Age of Aquarius expressionism, since he invented some of it.

Taken all in all, Wind is one of the biggest, best surprises of the decade. It fulfills the promise so many 'last films' never seem to do, ala Nicholas Ray's We Can't Go Home Again . Since Welles isn't around to second guess and overthink it into endless abstraction, it's a real gift to cinema that someone who 'gets' Welles and knew him and respected his notes almost slavishly, yet is a talent in his own right, was there to pick up the million pieces and finish what may be one of the best 70s movies of the 21st century. Though again, not unlike most of Welles' work, the overall effect seldom transcends its maker's larger-than-life male ego. The hall of mirrors climax of Lady from Shanghai is again the definitive Welles' image, albeit with him firing at himself firing at himself, self-love and epiphanic realization of that love's hollowness revolving in an endless reverse ouroboros. Doesn't matter, though - his gun never misses and his puking bite is never totally fatal. He even lets a few female characters make their comments. A bitchy lady critic (played with gusto by Susan Strasberg) get in some cruel barbs before someone punches her out. Auteurs will be boys, after all. Hey, speaking of boys...

5. THE WILD BOYS
(Les garçons sauvages)
Dir Bertrand Mandico

Surreal and strange in ways that evoke erotic deconstructions like Batailles' Story of the Eye and Angela Carter's Passion of a New Eve, but in an homage to a kind of Haynes-Jarman rough trade queerness with a dash of Maddin and, and of course, Clockwork Orange,  this surreal fable concerns a gang of unruly violent boys (all played by girls in drag) forced into a Captains Courageous kind of youth rehabilitation program cure after they brutalize their literature teacher (once a voodoo-like spirit of violent destruction overtakes them during a masked drunken performance art version of the opening three witches scene of  Macbeth). After a brutal period at sea, collared to the ship and regularly choked to within an inch of their lives at the captain's whim, they wind up on a  mysterious island with sexually active vegetation, the ever-present smell of oysters ("the whole island is an oyster") that has strange hormonal magic, including the ability to make boys grow breasts, and watch as their penises fall off into the relentless surf. Drinking milky manna from phallic tubers and screwing flytrap style flower monsters, everything from Naked Lunch to Matango may well and goodly be conjured here, with the overall effect transcending anything so mundane as tawdriness, or morality.

And while they may be girls, these kids are still badasses, though, soon joining forces with a mysterious lady (formerly male) doctor (Elina Löwensohn [Nadja]), sexually devouring and killing randy sailors. Or something. Touching Lord of the Flies meets The Blue Lagoon kind of castaway weirdness, this is really off in a field by itself, chasing horny phallic dragonflies and volcano penises erupting into bubbling crevasses. What does it all mean? You know damned well: when surrealism sets sail, the wind that blows the ship forward is the gas bag exhalation of meaning dying in its conformist straitjacket back on shore. When French women put on male drag, they swagger and wave their cocks around like they just strapped them on, it's really something. Shot in startling black and white with forays into surreal 16mm color, this exercise in gender bending psychosexual surrealism is a breath of fresh island air, salty with sex, oysters, and horny vegetation, the sequences at sea are great too - not sure how they did it, but its some of the best stormy ocean, (non-CGI) floundering ship work I've seen in a long time. (in French with English subtitles) - See full review: Isles of Lowensohn

6. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
Dir. Boots Riley

A fresh new African American voice, pitched somewhere between the social surrealism of Michel Gondry, the urban agency of Spike Lee, and the savage middle class satire of Jody Hill, Boots Riley announces "I am here" with a truly weird and engaging feature debut. In some weird alternate LA, slacker Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) intends to pay rent on his uncle's garage apt. as soon as he gets a job. He's got a cute girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson)-- an artist/activist who works spinning a sign on the street, but who aims at something better, so Cassius better pull himself out of his slacker spiral before she moves on. Working largely on commission as a telemarketer, Cassius flounders until he's counseled by a wise cubicle neighbor (Danny Glover) on finding his 'white boy voice' - which means he's soon dubbed by David Cross and moving up the ladder, selling arms and slave labor but making so much money he can't complain, even as he sells out his former co-workers, now unionizing. Meanwhile there's a controversial work camp arrangement heavily advertised as an options to the struggle, one where all bills are paid, needs are met, and you live where you work, eat and sleep all in the same place - though apparently once the Wal-Mart-ish sheen is stripped off, it's slavery. From there it only gets weirder including a WTF moment so insane I can't spoil it (it wasn't spoiled for me, I won't do it for you). You're bound to laugh at least once, nervously, and come away with new ways of asking the right questions so wrongly they don't even need an answer.

7. ZAMA
Dir. Lucretia Martel
As serenely brutal and sexually hostile as an Ilsa film stretched to slow motion (sans Dyanne Thorne), Martel's adaption of a popular Argentine historical novel stars Daniel Jiminez Cacho as the sexually-frustrated magistrate of a sweltering Spanish outpost in South America in the late 1600s. Desperate to return to civilization and his family but needing the approval of an almost entirely absent governor/treasurer, Zama spends his day hearing complaints that underly the horrifying systemic brutality and oppression of the enslaved caste of natives, trying to keep his libido under control (he refuses to 'lower' himself with one of the eminently available local native girls), and inevitably feeling himself dragged as if by magnetic force towards the horny wife of the treasurer, said treasurer being one of the few men whose good word might get him transferred. Better go careful, Zama! Enterprising slaves are ever watching and listening at keyholes as the only racially acceptable woman in town trots out heady bottles of rum, her crooked powdered wig and corseted bosom wobbling with boozy heat. Meanwhile rumors of a rapist bandit sneaking into the village during the afternoons finally drives Zama to form a posse and head into the jungles.

Borrowing elements of Herzog's kind of deep focus documentary-style canvas approach to the ambivalence of the jungle while ladling on her own masterful ability to index an array of characters moving and parrying at cross-purposes inside a frame, Martel takes on gorgeous tracking shots through room after room of fascinating, heat-ravaged tableaus. Ever trying and failing to conquer the natural world and their own inner urges, the 'civilized' Spaniards literally fall to pieces. Tarkovsky-esque--disoriented sound design amps the paranoia, thrusting us up against Zama's nose as he navigates clustered hallways where tall powdered wings wave like unsteady ship prows atop heat-drunk heads, native slaves stand around in silent opprobrium, the in-between caste does their chores, and by the time one's decoded the meaning of what's going on, the chance to do anything about it is long past. Brilliant, but withering, and without any of the maternal comfort offered by some Martel's previous films, Zama is a dish as potent and pungent as a punch in the head with an soaked sock full of sea-slimed emeralds. (in Spanish with English subtitles)

8. ROMA
Dir Alfonso Cuaron

Clearly a letter of love and gratitude to Cuaron's maid/nanny while growing up, a reverie of life in a big family in Mexico City circa 1971 actually functions together with Zama as an almost sequel (even the names are familiar, neither has any music --relying instead on a tapestry of diegetic sound--and Martel made a similar film to Roma in her feature debut, La Cienega) - showing the result of all that Spanish colonization in the 1600s. Here it is a mere 180 or so years later, Native South Americans aren't enslaved anymore, but rather work as servants to the more European-blooded upper middle class or else scrabble around in the outskirt slum areas. The mostly silent maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is much loved by the children and the mom even though she seldom cleans up after the dog (it clearly needs to be walked more often), so there's piles of shit all over the driveway. She winds up pregnant (the boyfriend disappears as soon as he hears) and eventually finds a sort of peace in the arms of a household where the men run off and abandon and their women and children. Told mostly in long slow pans, the shots are amazing. The standout: an extended sequence of the grandmother and maid trying to buy a crib at a furniture store while a full-blown bloodbath riot goes on outside (ala the car attack in his Children of Men), leading to her water breaking; their attempt to get to the hospital in the thick of tear gas and traffic and climaxing in a genius over-crowded public hospital (where the deadbeat husband happens to work as a doctor). It's topped later in an amazing glide shot that follows Cleo from the beach out into the deep deep water to rescue the kids nearly swept out to sea in rough tides over the holiday. From far up the beach all the way out to the whirling depths without the slightest tremor in the camera, there's not even salt spray on the lens. It's beyond amazing. Every inch of the screen is used for masterful compositions, the incredible extended sequences, and invisible acting, make this one a real winner despite the 'have your cake and critique the power structure that made someone else bake it for you' subtext. (in Spanish with English subtitles)

9. EIGHTH GRADE
Dir Bo Burnham 

Lots of angst and pain in this torturously awkward film. Set in the last days of junior high school as experienced by a typically awkward girl, it posits the terrors we all felt as children in the horrible 'body changes' portion of childhood (that we tend to block from our memories as if some brutal assault). With this film they come flooding back, and we learn since we escaped the self-consciousness has been amped to eleven thanks to the proliferation of smartphone technology. Now, every awkward attempt at socialization shall be preserved and disseminated amidst a teen's peers faster than you can even regret what you just said. The one advantage: even with no hits you can pretend you're sort-of famous. First-time feature director Bo Burnham (see his comedy specials on Netflix, please!) keeps the acne-ridden face of our frumpy heroine front and center, forcing us into a kind of aesthetic corner, a self-conscious nightmare prison. It all climaxes in a horrifyingly tense backseat seduction attempt that will be truly illuminating to a lot of men. It's all illuminating, but in the end all it perhaps does is remind us why we blocked those memories out, making us wonder if Bo's a sadist or just trying for a unique catharsis. It succeeds in both counts, but I never want to see it again.

10. INFINITY WAR
Dir. Anthony and Joe Russo

Speaking of unaccountable dread, this WAR was so epic it gave me an anxiety attack and I had to stop watching (on Blu-ray) and go to bed, where I dreamt of it. The idea that a power could come along and beat all the superheroes in a massive fight was too much to bear in my sensitive state. And yet, as a proponent of population control I couldn't argue with the logic of the ruthless intergalactic monster played so well by the great Josh Brolin as the villainous Thanos. Our world especially could use a good 'halving' to the overpopulation levels we had during the time of Soylent Green, when we were only at 3 1/2 billion and worried that, if left unchecked, our population growth would kill the planet. Now, of course, it's already too late. So no one--Thanos aside--even brings it up. Leave it to Marvel and their sympathetic villains, to point out the elephants choking up every available free space in the room. But that's not even the reason this rocks so hard. On earth and in space, the wit and energy flow nonstop, the battles so ingeniously staged, the mood so dire, so much at stake, that it's hard to find a single dead spot, I mean aside from the soapy, tiresome Vision and Scarlet Witch romance (just writing that sentence I hear Juliette Binoche laughing derisively behind me) and the buzzkilling Pepper Potts-Stark inter-helmet 'be careful' moments. The rest of the time, the action and wit overlap in genius doses -- the superheroes all working as such a quick, focused team that it's jaw-dropping. The pick for most critics as the best Marvel this year was Black Panther, and while it was great and with a potent social message, it it got a little too 'real' and some of the banter seemed a tad too chipper. No, I think the best one was actually Ant Man and the Wasp. Call me crazy, but they're all winners! They'll stand the test of time, and constant reruns. Unlike the depressing Eighth Grade, I'm looking forward to seeing this one again, albeit in bits and pieces, safely broken up by commercials on FX, and FXX, especially after the second part is released so I can rest, presumably, and get down from the stark, terrifying cliff we're left hanging from.

11. HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES
Dir. John Cameron Mitchell

Philophile director John Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) sets Neil Gaiman's graphic novella in the thick of 70s Thatcher England, turning into a punk rock sci-fi odyssey about the healing glory of love and music (surprise!). Alex Sharp stars as Enn, the insecure punk rock fanzine artist who's mighty brave when it come to plastering ugly stickers around his ugly town (Croyden!) but shy as hell when it comes to talking to girls. "They're not from another planet," being the courage-bolstering saying offered by Enn's more-confident buddy, but at 'wrong' punkshow after-party, the girls are from another planet. A color-coded latex-wearing bunch of group minded 'tourists' from outer space, they're a semi-hive minded collective organized according to a chakra-style energy scale, engaged in super weird dances and ceremonies. The boys in Enn's crew wind up with different colors, each according to his fancy. Meanwhile, upstairs, doe-eyed Zann (Elle Fanning) wants to get out and actually explore something of this grotty new world that the rest of them are only passing by, she wants to get off the tour bus, so to speak. So sshe runs off with Enn, to get a close-up look at the grungy glory of 70s Croyden. And, hey - we feel their connection. Their time together is magical, if you've ever been in that situation, where just being together as much as possible is so key that when they're gone it's like you've been forced out of a toasty hot tub into a cold alleyway.... Well, you get it.

Most of all, Zann takes to the new world with gusto, and catches the eye of local punk den mother Bodacia (Nicole Kidman in a silver wig).
Played with her Aussie badass roots exposed to the core, Nicole Kidman gives us a throaty ferocity, and the basement punk show club she runs is so spot-on you'll feel like you're there and having a great time. The song Enn and Zann sing on her club stage evolves and leads them to a full blown mystical encounter. If you've kind of hated yourself for being reduced to tears by Hedwig's "Origin of Love" back in the 90s, you'll be glad that this one ("Eat Me Alive") just gives us deep punk rock chills, with a foray into Ziggy cosmic wonderment instead - with the blazing energy so well visualized you'll feel like you're getting off on good ecstasy at the best punk rock show of your teenage life. Mitchell's you-are-there camera and sound mixes really capture the live punk rock basement club event momentum, you can hear the instruments echoing off the low cavernous ceiling, and yet it's all vivid and electric, maybe the best-mixed live punk music I've ever heard --raw and immediate, powerful and yet low-fi. So's the film, with its great contrast between the cosmic high-marred by conformity and the industrial downbeat sparkling with total freedom. I'm not sure, but I think Mitchell may have just redeemed the entirety of the long-sold-out punk rock movement with this one film, and I think Ziggy would like it as much as Iggy - and isn't that the whole Mitchell mission? 


TeleVision
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1. THE SHIVERING TRUTH
Created by Vernon Chatman
(Adult Swim)

Adult Swim continues their descent into the void with this mind-bending claymation spectacular from the demented mind of Vernon Chatman (Wonder Showzen). Following a kind of Rod Serling-meets-the "in a world" movie trailer voiceover narrator, we go on a bizarre free associative trip into the looking glass with the result being like the entire run of The Twilight Zone all compressed into 15 minute windows, liberally dosed with weird sex, violence, and Cronenbergian new flesh appendage removal, the "yes -and" improv-style relentless compounding lunacy of it all has reduced me to rolling on the ground convulsing with laughter like I haven't done sober ever. There's no going back after this. It's so out there it makes pretenders to the throne of strange wilt and fold. Accept it.

 2. BABYLON BERLIN
Created by Tom Twyker, et al
(Netflix)

Germany's big budget TV series revolves around the "first female police detective" in Weimar Berlin, a time between the two world wars, when Berlin, mired in economic depression, became an art, sex and crime mecca. Prostitution, homosexuality, drug addiction, pornography (silent era), and a decadent cross-dressing night club chanteuse master criminal white Russian equals the dusky TV series equivalent of a great, trashy, page-turning massive paperback of sexy historical fiction. If it eventually runs out of time without winding up in any profound way, well, is history any different? I like that the male-female crime-solving team of prostitute/party girl (Liv Lisa Fries) and drug-addicted police detective (Volker Bruch) become close without sex, and that the National Socialist party is only--at the very end--just starting make a brownshirt ruckus. The plot concerns, among other things, the planned assassination of a Treaty of Versailles-adhering politician and a train car full of gold fought over by an array of sordid but fascinating characters, commies, and causes, but the take-aways are the details along the way, like the rollicking song ("Zu aush, Zu Staub") that acts as the club's big theme. It's all done with great style and atmosphere, complex, hearty performances, and excellence all around. Acidemically, it's great to see a girl whose love of champagne and dabbling in prostitution doesn't mar her self-esteem and lead to tired self-sacrifice like it would in the states even during pre-code times, and a genuinely complex (neither good nor all-the-way) villain in the portly red-faced corrupt cop Bruno (Peter Kurth) partner. (in German with English subtitles)


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3. MANIAC
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga / Created by Patric Somerville
(Netflix)

One of the first shows since Rick and Morty to seamlessly integrate psychotherapy into science fiction, this alternate reality sci-fi dramedy (?) stars Jonah Hill and Emma Stone as participants in a looney drug-AI trial, meeting and becoming good friends during deep dream realities managed by an artificial intelligence that takes their hang-ups and repressions and builds scenarios that will help them process and move on. Or something. As with the above Sorry to Bother You, it's set in an alternate reality and occurs largely at a big retrofuturist pharmaceutical corporation during a week-long drug trial / sleep over. They together or alternately move through adventures ranging from LOTR elvin sojurns, mobster dramas, white trash lemur reclamation, and high end through-the-looking glass bending of the light between dreams and virtual reality.


With great lighting and deep human insight as well as tapping into that great sleep-over feel (as participants are in this cool 70s-modular deep bunker within a giant pharmaceutical corporation for an entire week) it evokes 60s-70s vintage sci-fi films (and modern retrofuturist wonders like Beyond the Black Rainbow). The only wrong notes are the terrible name (there's already a downbeat 1980 horror movie by the same name, its remake, and at least one other movie or TV show also called Maniac!) and Dan Romer's opportunity-squandering score, for he passes over the modular synths and analog Moogs (imagine the seat-rumbling analog insanity Sionoa Caves or Tom Raybould could have brought to this!) in favor of the same alterna-twee folksy nonsense that's been warning men away from rom-coms since Garden State. Justin Theroux and Sonoya Mizumo are a great team as the brainy scientists who put the whole thing together, and try to fix it when it all falls apart. Sally Field is Theroux's Dr. Phil-like daytime TV therapist mom, called in to relate to the AI when it starts to go rogue. Considering the rumor that the show itself got its start through a computer program reading and assembling elements of the most watched Netflix shows, it's mad meta. Don't even worry about where it's headed or why, just note the similarity to films like John Dies at the End and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and know that's a good thing.


4. THE CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA
Created/developed: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
(Netflix)
Aided by a stunning cast this is one long tease of a show as we keep waiting and hoping Sabrina--in the process of becoming of age to do so as a witch in an established small town coven-- will sign the book of the devil and be damned forever yet bestowed with countless evil powers. Unfortunately she lets herself be dragged down, as so many girls in real life are who are destined for bigger and better things, by love for some doomed luddite townie (Harvey!). It works because though aimed at younger viewings there are ample killings and exclamations like "Thank Satan you're all right!" by worried aunts. Even Sabrina slashes another girl's throat open at one point, and while she presumes her love for mortals is somehow golden. Luckily, it's not the late 30s-late 60s anymore, so we don't have to worry Harvey's going to convince Sabrina to shun her magic proclivities or any semblance of her own career in favor of cooking corn beef and cabbage (ala Robert Preston in This Gun for Hire). As for the adults, all very fine with a real full-blooded stand-out in the evil Michelle Gomez (aka "The Master" in later seasons of Dr. Who) as Satan's henchwoman, assuming a role as guidance counsellor at Sabrina's school in order to slyly lead her down the left-handed path. Also noteworthy is the stunning art direction, with every room in the Spellman mortuary a work of art, filling the HD widescreen frame with such great array of dusky color and candlelight you'll be wondering where and when you might sign the book yourself. 

5. BIG MOUTH
by Nick Krohl and John Mulaney
(season 2 - Netflix)
Amazingly instructive as well as relentlessly horrifying, there's abundant wit and compassion in this hilarious animated examination of those 'special changes' that demarcate puberty. Nick Krohl and John Mulaney once again star, with Jordan Peele doing the voice of the irrepressible ghost of Duke Ellington. This time there's a special "Planned Parenthood" episode, a drug episode and great new characters like the Depression Kitty and, most memorably, the Shame Wizard makes his debut and never leaves. Voiced with real slippery charm by David Thewlis, his undermining all the children with deep age-appropriate insecurity becomes the runaway scene stealer of the season. The snippy gay aesthete kid also finds a bit of a guide in a chance encounter with a Fierstein-ish neighbor at an bachelor apartment complex (Broh! He even vapes). All the good stuff more than makes up for the sleazier aspects like the eternally horny Jay and his talking sex pillow's rivalry with a downstairs couch cushion.

Yeesh, is that how I'm going to end this year round-up, talking about Jay's cushions?

Change of Subject: How about a shout-out to:

 FORGED IN FIRE 
(History Channel)

The best reality series on TV, a re-exhumation of the Iron John power that men sorely need and women inherently gravitate to (host Will Willis is the mancrush of his era). It fills a starved-for-positive male images nation with hope. Tapping into the riddle of steel has never seemed more accessible and vital. Even if no one is going to move into metalsmithing after watching it, we need this show's wild man archetypal power. Hurrah. We may be saved, after all. If you're listening guys: more ballistics dummies and fewer animal carcasses, please!

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SOUNDTRACK COLLECTION:


SEE ALSO:
BEST OF 2017

Friday, December 14, 2018

Isles of Löwensohn: THE WILD BOYS, LET THE CORPSES TAN


Funny that after decades of seeing her only hither or yon, I find Elina Löwensohn in two new movies (en français), which I happened to watch, back-to-back on two consecutive nights, by surreal detour-taking auteurs, both with her cast as a semi-insane ruler of a gorgeous but desolate and remote location, watching over scenes of death and sex with a haughty glee and owning her masculine side, if you will, with cigar and psychopomp swagger. In THE WILD BOYS and LET THEIR CORPSES TAN--startling auteurial exercises that draw kinky sexual imagery from the darndest of places--we find this Romanian-American actress (just one year older than me, she's handling it way better) sure can swing a wild dick, if you'll pardon my French. Both from last year but just getting here (to America!) now (via streaming), both are shot in blazing Super-16mm celluloid, are ravishingly beautiful and daring to the core.


What are the odds I'd see these movies back-to-back, not knowing Löwensohn was in either one, after not seeing hide nor hair of since her small role in The Forbidden Room (and before that, Nadja), where she looked, frankly, like a different person - she was still 'gamin'-esque in Room, but here she's surrendered even late inning Delpy/Huppert-style hotness in favor of a stogie and a laugh throaty enough to choke the communism out of Lionel Stander, wagging her sun-browned body around like a picayune general bounding over piles of enemy corpses, breasts bared with the 'who cares?' haughtiness that marks European women as the superior to all other genders and continents. She's rocking punk rock bangs and a stare that could freeze the blood of a drowsy kitten basking in the sun. Those breasts are young and full-still, as if eternal. Shall you not try to swing the same?


8 THE WILD BOYS
(Les garçons sauvages)
Dir Bertrand Mandico
***1/2

Surreal and strange in ways that mixes Clockwork Orange-Captains Courageous bad boy rehab adventures into erotic gender-bent deconstructions like Batailles' Story of the Eye and Angela Carter's Passion of a New Eve, it's the hardy tale of of a youth rehabilitation program cure taken by five over-privileged punks after they brutalize their literature teacher. Trevor, a voodoo-like spirit of violent destruction that wears a glittery skull mask and likes to run around as a dog (!), overtook them during a masked drunken performance art piece (reciting the opening three witches scene of Macbeth) while wearing terrifying maskies. After a brutal period at sea, collared to the ship and regularly choked to within an inch of their lives at the salty captain's whim, the wild boys wind up on a  mysterious island with sexually active vegetation, the ever-present smell of oysters and a strange hormonal magic, including the ability to slowly turn boys into girls (their penises drop off and are swept away in the uncaring surf, suddenly no more relevant than land crabs). Trees and rocks become giant asses and mocking breasts.


Soon joining forces with a mysterious lady (formerly male) doctor (Löwensohn) they start sexually devouring and killing randy sailors, committing high seas mutiny, and surrendering to the intoxicating touch and taste of the local plant life. Touching Lord of the Flies meets The Pink Lagoon kind of castaway weirdness, our Les garçons sauvages is really off in a field by itself, chasing horny phallic dragonflies, drinking manna-jaculate from phallic tubers, screwing between leafy legs, sleeping deep in the shrubbery, evoking everything from Naked Lunch to Matango its hallucinatory amok Friday-Crusoe wandering (and even Valhalla Rising if you're keeping score), it may well and goodly be conjured.. (The great twist though is that these boys were played by girls to begin with, and the freedom accorded these already free French actresses allows them to swagger in ways that are good to see.)

What does it all mean? You know damned well what it means. Read Batailles and Angela Carter and learn something about just how precarious your own sexuality... is. Words on a page can reorganize the molecular structure of your private parts. Read and get aroused in places you didn't even know were there, and suddenly buried infant memories sweep up onto the rocks. When French women put on male drag they swagger and wave their cocks around like they just strapped them on, and when they fall off, they behold their breasts like they just got their team colors. It's quite revealing when deconstructing the postures and posing of the Paris is Burning houses (with which it would make a wild double feature), all swivel-hipped sailors and grabby crotch-forward surrender --the way letting your unconscious anima/animus stretch out in drag brings all sorts of in-the-moment awareness and mojo. Shot in startling black and white with forays into surreal color, the spirit of experimental expressionism and psychosexual weirdness is alive and well with this new force of surreal grandeur Bertrand Mandico. Remember that name,  Bunuel, Jarman, Anger, my mamas, you can rest in peace at last (yes, Kenneth, I know you're still alive, but rest... there... there now).




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LET THE CORPSES TAN
(Laissez bronzer les cadavres)
Dirs. Helene Cattet's and Bruno Forzani
***

My expectations ran mighty high for this, Belgian couple Helene Cattet's and Bruno Forzani's third feature, being such a gigantic fan of their 2009 debut, Amer, and such a cautious admirer of their sophomore effort, The Strange Color of Her Body's Tears.  Turns out, while still suffused with their signature style (gorgeous 35mm photography, tastefully-recycled Ennio Morricone, lots of feverish close-ups of eyes, hands, knives, guns, mouths, wild clothing, associative editing) there's no room in a traditional crime thriller (adopted from a potboiler French novel) for the kind of psychosexual or post-structuralist departures that made their earlier work so delectably artsy. They did pick a nice locale, a remote mountaintop ruin overlooking the crashing Mediterranean surf, with such energetic rigor that you want to pack up and move there, even if they don't have air conditioning. Clear deep blue sky, blazing sun, but you can feel how cold it is in the shadows. It's an artist's retreat but now housing a gang of gold hijackers laying low. Run by a crazy artist (Elina Löwensohn, still smoking those stogies) and her has-been writer lover played by the indefatigable Marc Barbé (they were last paired together as killer and final girl/lady in the unrelentingly grim Sombre, so it's nice to see them all sun-baked and in cahoots). Stephane Ferrara is a guy named Rhino, but he's not the big bald bruiser you'd think was named Rhino --that guy's in the cold storage cave, screwing the roast lamb hanging there (that lamb gets pretty gross and shot up by the end of the film). At least I think that's true. Who can keep all these craggy faces straight?


Anyway, it's a perfect location. Who wouldn't want to shoot a movie there, or hide out after a crime, even without air conditioning, phone or electricity? Even the writer's wife comes there, uninvited, with her kid (stolen from her ex-husband who has sole custody) and a cute young maid. Complications! The crooks will have to kill everyone. And then two motorcycle cops show up. Oy, it's going to be a long afternoon. With its gradual existential dwindling and the idea of a remote location occupied solely by armed men and women angling after loot, comes visions of everything from Point Blank, For a Few Dollars More, and--a recent surreal discovery lurking nonchalantly in the ocean of Prime streaming Italian westerns, Matalo!), and as long as we focus on the gorgeous, well-thought out compositions and gorgeous cinematography, well why not? Let the sunshine and the night perpetrate and the cliche'd close-ups of ants representing the scattering crooks be minimal. Forzani and Cattet have such devotion to their startling compositions and deep colors that the big picture falls away. They cram in surreal details (it's supposed to be an artist's colony) like afterthoughts: when one man is shot the gold he's carrying is hit and explodes as if liquid, splashing all over him (art!), but aside from a very cool skull-headed hobby horse, and a painting Elina makes in the beginning by shooting paint pellets at a canvas and burning holes in it with her cigar, there's not much art on the scene after that. It all has to be made up on the spot by the filmmakers, leading to weirdly sexual or death driven tableaux (below) that may not add up to much beyond their own ephemerality.


In what are either fantasies or flashbacks, a young silhouetted anima figure (presumably Löwensohn's character in her younger artist muse days), stands over a group of men and pees on them and Morricone guitar stings bray; later she's tied to a cross and the cruel tight ropes over her breasts cause her breasts to lactate in great rivers down her body (evoking similar imagery with the lit teacher in the early portion of The Wild Boys); later still she jams her heel into the mouth of one of the men  intercut with the 'in the moment' use of a gun in the similar orifice, ala the 'dying primal scene reverie' images in Argento's Tenebrae. And yet, the synergy that made Amer so magnificently Antonioni-meets-Argento-esque (dialoguing with Lucretia Martel's paranoid soundscapes and Claire Denis' shadowy sexuality as well as Argento's psychosexual post-modernism) is all missing --so there's nothing resonant to hang the imagery together with. Aside from the snarky obviousness of "gold"-en showering, or the commerce/art compromise when gold coins become liquid gold paint, the two voices--the feminine avant garde experimental non-narrative and the masculine/Apollonian narrative--don't connect like one would hope. We end up admiring the lovely location, the photography, the range of styles, the great use of classic Italian film music, but eventually we lose any idea of who's who or why we should care. The reason those new wave crime movies worked back in the day was the cultural landscape was so different. Censorship and big budgets made mainstream fare so tedious and conventional that unusual angles, splurges of sex and giddy violence, the bad getting off free from their crimes, usual plots subverted, the crime was the style. Outlaw culture was born, leading directly from Breathless to Badlands. I'll definitely see Corpses again and hope my feelings change. But now I'm just confused. (Another weird connection - seeing this film the same year as the release of Other Side of the Wind, for Welles' artsy film-within-the-film sure has a lot in common. Shhh - but at least with Welles all the surrealism connected properly - you knew what it all meant even if what it meant wasn't clear. He kept it simple, allowing the style and symbolism to directly link.)

A  similar simplicity worked in Amer, a three-vignettes of sexual awakening in a girl's life told in three distinct retro styles. This allowed for true new wave energy, giving us the modernist frisson of not recognizing signifiers we find in the best of Antonioni. We didn't need a narrative in Amer because we saw the common thread through it all, as if all the movies made in Europe about woman's sexuality suddenly rearranged themselves into a completed puzzle. Amer didn't have to make sense, it was sense itself. Forzani and Cattet's sophomore effort, Strange Color of Her Body's Tear, was more like an exercise in bravura style, but with enough enticingly lovely symbols floating through it and such a gorgeous art nouveau hotel setting it didn't matter if the story got monotonous and incoherent. With Corpses though, what do we have? Bronzed Mediterranean forty-fifty-somethings lounging amidst the cloudless blazing blue sky and groovy ruins? Up close shots of eyes, guns and gross mouths stuffed with food and bad teeth? One is tempted to recall Hitchcock's line about how some directors make slices of life, while he makes slices of cake. What is Corpses a slice of? Can one really slice a slice?

I know for sure there was enough resonant material lying around this could have worked. Imagine the archetypal mythic resonance Tennessee Williams could do with a location like this --this crumbling Mount Olympus, this Catholic Ozymandias. Imagine the metatextual connections a Suzuki, Godard or Petri would make. Instead, what we come away with is a beautiful postcard that, if you stare at it long enough, starts to seem dirty.

Anyway, it's worth the trip just for the view.

And the balls.

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