Wednesday, 7 February 2018

A Decent Woman (2016)

Director: Lukas Valenta Rinner
Screenplay: Ana Godoy, Ariel Gurevich, Martín Shanly and Lukas Valenta Rinner
Cast: Iride Mockert as Belen, Ivanna Colona Olsen as Paola, Mariano Sayavedra as Garita, Pablo Seijo as Arquitecto, Martín Shanly as Juan Cruz, Andrea Strenitz as Diana

Synopsis: Belen (Iride Mockert), a housemaid for a rich suburbia family, peaks into a woodland area nearby cordoned off by an electric fence. A New Age nudist colony live there, and after her initial hesitation, she joins them finding herself at peace finally. As building pressure against them from the suburbanites grows however, the results when triggered to a breaking point become drastic.

Whatever my opinion of A Decent Woman, I will argue this film's style is more rewarding than the dirge of sub-realistic art cinema. It is a style clearly indebted to the likes of Yorgos Lanthimos and Ulrich Seidl, one that has become a style shared over films regardless of their country of origins, and as the "slow cinema" that became popular in the 2000s was it is becoming more common as a shared aesthetic style over multiple films. It is subjective at times and even pretentious to divide these styles when for the popular they may look entirely the same; but a factor, especially for the Lanthimos films, to help distinct them is that they rely on tableau shots with minimal camera movement and have a tendency for absurdity mixed with transgression. At least as a result you do not get the permanent close-ups fund in other films but with a work like A Decent Woman a sense of environment to build from with the numerous long shots, the camera never shaking and the sense of colour to the images presence even when they are still naturalistic. At least with these films there is a sense of the unpredictable at hand, far from simplistic nihilism but a style even when it has been bleak and cynical infused with surreal humour.


Obviously now there are multiple films across countries and languages with this style, there is a danger of nameless copycats existing, where regardless of their origins there is no sense of distinction to raise themselves from the others imitating the likes of Lanthimos. A Decent Woman struggles against this whilst having moments of unique personality. It is helped by its setting, Argentinean woodland having a sense of being an actual paradise, appropriate for nudists to have their own Eden. It is to an advantage for the materialistic modern culture against the hippies. Rinner does simplify the suburbanites, merely some glimmers of their tensions surrounding the one family Belen works for, which does undercut how interesting the nudists are themselves. They are stereotypical themselves, a free love community who sit around in nude circles in the grass talking of various forms of spiritual energy or expressing their emotions honestly, but they are harmless to the outside world. Any community where you can see a vinyl copy of Lizard by King Crimson in someone's hut are not exactly corrupting influences on the suburban environment. Anything sexual is covered by an isolated environment, and with only the improvised pest control of parrots being a potential issue for their neighbours with the image of nudists with rifles. In fact their animal orgy in the centre of the story, painting themselves up as various animals of the wild with the cast acting as them, is the best part of the film as it feels idiosyncratic to this director. A scene with shots of the various cast members, of all shapes and ages, painted as animals which emphasises how the film goes beyond the immediate shock of the constant nudity to an actual oneness to these characters to the environment unclothed.  

The problem with A Decent Woman, when the suburbanites complain about the nudists minding their own business and an incident takes place that pushes people to the edge, is that it takes a simplistic turn. One with an ethical issue for a viewer as the hippies have been painted with a sympathetic brush before. For three quarters they are pacifists only to turn violent after an event which does not feel like a catalyst but a horrible accident. It is meant to be a metaphor for a cultural clash between these New Age or alternative lifestyles and an imposing, restrictive normalcy, but as you see nudists with guns clash on a golf course with armed police the message has been very simplistic beforehand, too simplistic. Also too sadistic in how it gleefully embraces the nude hippies getting bloodthirsty without the consequences and morbid humour of Yorgos Lanthimos. His characters, no matter how much they could act in despicable ways, are still compelling as complex figures. Here with A Decent Woman you see how more has to be done with such a style, the absurdity meant to mean more.

Abstract Spectrum: Weird
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None

Personal Opinion:
Good moments are found in A Decent Woman, which show a lot of potential in Lukas Valenta Rinner as a director. He needs to find more of his own style however.  


Monday, 5 February 2018

Pi (1998)


Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Sean Gullette as Maximillian "Max" Cohen; Mark Margolis as Sol Robeson; Ben Shenkman as Lenny Meyer; Samia Shoaib as Devi; Pamela Hart as Marcy Dawson; Stephen Pearlman as Rabbi Cohen; Ajay Naidu as Farrouhk; Kristyn Mae-Anne Lao as Jenna; Lauren Fox as Jenny Robeson

Synopsis: Whilst locked in his rented apartment working on how to predict stock market data, mathematical genius Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette) may have found the name of God in a code his computer prints out before dying on him. With a corporation at one end interested in his research, and a sect of rabbinical mystics at the other desiring the name of God, Cohen ignores the warnings of his mentor and friend Sol (Mark Margolis) of how dangerous his search for the truth is, as his cluster headaches increase and bizarre sights plague his waking reality.

Pi is the film even those who hate Darren Aronofsky's work should see. Nineteen years before mother! (2017), Pi is a drastically different film and its obvious way when you watch them close to each other. mother! is the product of hubris, unfocused and problematic, with money and production design behind it without stepping back to carefully consider itself. Pi like the best of the American independent films of its time, even if raw and imperfect, is ferocious and made by a hungry young filmmaker, helped by the restrictions he had to make the film. At only eighty minutes, there is no time for pretentiousness and Aronofsky cannot afford big name actors or CGI rock monsters. It is for the better.

Helping is that, whilst mother! presented a problematic misreading of Christian iconography and vague depictions of the creative ego and environmentalism, Pi feels like the creation of a Darren Aronofsky who has actually read up on his premise. It is still a surface interpretation of Jewish mysticism and mathematics, but it is a clearly presented premise, in which a young man fails to heed his mentor's warning of searching for the truth, said mentor even going as far as point out one of his goldfish is named Icarus, the figure of Greek legend who flew too close to the sun. Cohen himself has experience in this as, referenced numerous times in narration, he was once warned by his mother never to star directly into the sun only to do such a thing. That his mentor's stroke that debilitated him was likely due to also finding the name of God, through his own research on the number of Pi, is not enough to dissuaded Cohen. Aronofsky does not try to add any more themes too many, and he is not trying a subject like artistic creativity or the nature of mankind which could show him up as being empty minded on the topics. Instead this is something well worn and yet able to lead to his own unique take on the subject. That it references Jewish mysticism even if a beginner's guide to it, like the Kabala, is certainly a different way to tackle the subject as said mystics and a sinister corporation encroach on Cohen. A curious paranoia thriller, a Jorge Luis Borges plot in need of Borges having to actually interpret it in his own way.


Here as well the body horror that failed in mother! works as it is the result of Aronofsky having to rely on limited means. It is also original as a result of this, where even the fact it evokes other work and even surrealistic art does not deny the film its own idiosyncratic mood with the material. Cohen's visions, hallucinations or an insight to another world, are far and away more frightening than in mother!, especially as the film in set in real life New York City of the period forcing these bizarre moments into our own world and Cohen's. Where a bleeding man is stood erect on a subway station platform or when Cohen finds a brain covered in ants, sights that could be found in an isolated urban environment if you crossed the wrong backstreet or went on the underground subway late at night. If there is a film Aronofsky has likely taken a lot of influence from it is Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), which he has admitted to. At times, especially in the look of the film and Coehn's apartment being swallowed up by computers, it is as if the film is going to turn into an American remake of Tetsuo. It even evokes a work that was released the same year in its homeland called Serial Experiments Lain (1998), a Japanese animated series where a computer can swallow up an entire room with tentacle like cables and vast unknown components like Cohen's in his apartment. Aronofsky's is just as strange especially when Cohen finds an unknown organising has been cultivating amongst the circuitry.

Shot in high contrast black and white, Aronofsky's film is stunning to look at. It is not beautiful in the conventional sense, in many a grainy dank back alley, but the result feels lived in and atmospheric. The music is also perfect, not only Clint Mansell in an earlier part of his career but cult electronic musicians like Autechre on the soundtrack. This music is of its era but it has not dated in the slightest, the beats and crackles of each piece elevating the moments of paranoia and fear with ease and without becoming overbearing. Compared to no score and just pure unfocused chaos in mother! and the comparison stands out greatly in favour of the older film. Pi is not perfect because it has to deal with loose threads eventually in its premise. It is not as streamlined as Tetsuo was, having to juggle paranoia thriller touches with the esoteric kabala content and sci-fi horror, something which it could have gone further with for a few extra minutes to make all sides gel fully. However at eighty minutes one accepts it having to play fast and loose with the material, better for it to have been unpredictable rather than expounding on the material in ways which make the likes of later films like Noah (2014) egregious, full of clichés and terrible attempts of worldly contemplation.

Abstract Spectrum: Grotesque/Mindbender/Psychotronic
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Medium

Personal Opinion:
If the Darren Aronofsky that made Pi returns, then I might change my mind on a previous statement I made (see here). The Aronofsky of Pi is alien to the Aronofsky who came later, who had over indulged and disconnected himself from reality to the point it became morally problematic. Considering how mother! has been viewed, trashed as much as cheered, maybe the humbleness of shooting on real streets on a low budget again will purge his acquired flaws and find himself. If he made a film as good as Pi as a result, I would gladly apologise for some of my more disparaging remarks as it would be happier for him and film viewers if the version of him who made Pi came back wiser and as hungry to make good cult films again.


Friday, 2 February 2018

mother! (2017)

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence as mother; Javier Bardem as Him; Ed Harris as man; Michelle Pfeiffer as woman; Domhnall Gleeson as oldest son; Brian Gleeson as younger brother

[Full Spoilers Throughout]

I wrote, on my Letterboxd page, that I would never watch another Darren Aronofsky film. I will add two caveats now, and least I be viewed a hypocrite, this is why I rarely due snap judgements after viewing a film, as inevitably I Will think with more consideration about what I saw even if the original judgement call is the same. What I have to bear in mind is that 1) I might revisit The Wrestler (2008), his most grounded work. And 2), the man who made Pi (1998) is a very different figure than the one who made mother!. If the man who made Pi returns I might see his films again. As I wrote before, none of Aronofsky's work between is of interest for me - overrated, unsubtle, or with Noah (2014) a headache. I fully believe mother!, whose title immediately evokes a Jeeves and Wooster story that should have been written, is the artistic statement so misguided Aronofsky effectively shot himself in the head on-film. Ambition is usually to be admired, even failing, but this film's entire ethos in its style and message is from the start an entire moral failure. Those who despised mother! will be glad to know this is a shooting fish in a barrel scenario, where I pick up a rifle and join in. Those who liked mother! I apologise to immediately, as this review is going to get ugly quickly.

The P. G. Wodehouse reference is apt, as is Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel (1962) if the guests refused to leave rather than couldn't, a sitcom narrative where an egotistical writer (Javier Bardem) refuses to listen to his younger wife (Jennifer Lawrence) when he lets random strangers stay with them. It's a comedy premise written by some who however is using this idea to house Old and New Testament symbolism, which is where immediately the problems lie. The film is disconnected in its various themes which never fully connect, starting as a situational drama but becoming body horror, than psychological drama, than fully embracing the religious overtones just in the first hour. It is not fleshed together well - not able to connect the styles properly like the likes of Andrzej Zulawski could because there is both no risk, all that Aronofsky depicts onscreen a cliché, and no emotional connection that allows the subversion of genre and expectations to work.

The religious imagery in particular is in the centre of the work's clear lack of focus. I came into mother! knowing very well its plot structure is based on the Bible. That Bardem's author is God, Ed Harris as Adam, Michelle Pfeiffer as Eve, and their sons Cain and Abel making a cameo. Automatic problems arise in that their characters gel badly to their portrayal, as a story of a writer whose hubris willing sacrifices his wife's happiness contrasts in its presentation to a story of humanity and God from the beginning. The idea of a whole planet's Christian chronology being represented in one house not a bad idea but one failed because Aronofsky both skims over details and is also failing to actually tackle the Bible in a way that feels cohesive, coming off instead as a badly read interpretation. When Noah's flood is depicted by a leaking sink pipe, and it is not shot in a way that is delicately humorous, there is a misreading on hand before you get to the more problematic takes on religion that come. This does not even get into the idea that Jennifer Lawrence is meant to be Mother Nature, not an issue for myself to co-exist with the Christian deity but definitely an issue when said figure of Nature is such a wet, insignificant one.

The performances, barring Pfeiffer in a brief role, are terrible. The characters are walking symbols, at odds when characters have to be fully fleshed for the psychological horror at hand too. Lawrence is the worst as she has been forced to act like a walking board of wood, dressed and filmed in a way by her then-boyfriend Aronofsky which that is utterly embarrassing as a professional performer, a subservient housewife figure who is a very sexist depiction for any actress to play. It is also deeply incongruous to the film's environmental side as for a depiction of Mother Nature, completely alien to what Nature is both in perceived surroundings and spiritual. That there are only a few scenes actually showing the outside world, all CGI riddled splurge, and that the only form of strength shown close to the real power of the natural world is the sort of superpower from an X-Men movie.

The overall aesthetic of mother! is also some of the worst I've seen in a mainstream Hollywood film for a while, a new nadir in all the creative decisions I hate in current filmmaking. Turgid, lifeless colour palette of browns and greys like many films of the 2010s, lulling the viewer into a stupor. Gallingly people have referenced the likes of Hieronymus Bosch in references to this film's aesthetic to which they need a history lesson of Christian art. From the reds of Bosch's hell to the green Satan of Michael Pacher's The Devil holding up the book of Vices to St. Augustine, the Bible is a vast colourful spectrum in both its Hell as much as Heaven. There is not even a sense of actual space and environment to the house this story is set in, because the camera is usually close-up to Lawrence thus preventing the viewer establishing shots to take in this generic country home as a space to represent the Earth and its occupants. Neither was it a good idea to not use a score, a decision which instead saps tension from the images further.

When the film reaches full blown religion horror, it collapses completely. Surrealism is at one end, an important allegory at the other, and mother! misses both by a country mike. A home which has a heart in its walls but never defines said home as a character in itself, an organism with weight to it. A heart in the toilet is just a disconnected shock. The glowing yellow liquid Lawrence takes to calm herself is never something even as a surreal inclusion instead, practically fairy dust and urine for all the viewer knows. The subject of the egotistical writer clashes with this fully bizarre middle and final act is lost as a simplistic idea, the environmental message so painfully obvious it is a sketch show parody of an environmental allegory movies. The religious imagery, as the writer's fans start to become a religion surrounding him, is so heavy handed it is not passable critique for religion. In fact watching a film like this regardless of my own beliefs or even yours as a reader, its evidence to how utterly loathsome and eye rolling critiques of organised religion are in any medium now, feeling less like the necessary critiques of a century ago but the collective works of immature teenage nihilists. Immature people who are just trying to offend for the sake of their own egos, worst as it never feels like the work of people who have actually thought long and hard on their own beliefs, or bothered to even attempt to read any religious text beyond just Christian ones.

mother! skims over its religious material so much you actually end up with legitimately offensive moments, so broad not only the Christians have a right to be angry but even atheists should be as well, as the hellscape the house becomes is affectively the skeptic's version of a Evangelical hell house. Hell houses for the unknowledgeable are alternative Halloween haunted houses showing the sins that one has to repent for, unsubtle and offensive to outsiders in many cases for what they depict. mother! final act is a hell house just as liable to offend intelligent viewers, as amongst its thrill ride of mankind's worst acts you have a female sex slavery in one room, with stereotypical mobsters who speak in another language meant to evoke Eastern European gangsters, and in another genocide in which people have bags put on their heads and shot. All like the stereotypical image of a hell house without subtlety, and not even the context no matter how offensive they can be of the Evangelical ones. Somehow Aronofsky justifies for me a little why the term "Hollyweird" exists for liberal Hollywood, because his depiction of human beings as merely the fleas on Earth rather than capable of transcendence manages to even offend a spiritual agonist with liberal ideals like me.

Then you get to the baby. Considering it is clearly Jesus Christ, despite Lawrence being Mother Earth and clearly not the Virgin Mary, I did suspect Aronofsky would go as far as having a crucified baby on a cross and be that stupid. Somehow he managed worse. It is at first unintentionally hilarious as, perfectly described in the review on, you see a "crowd surfing baby", one of the worst CGI creations I have seen on top of a crowd of extras like we have ended up at a Metallica concert. Then, after killing the child, said extras eat said baby's corpse. It is a moment that has been too much for many, and as someone who became an uncle for the first time in the year when mother! was unleashed into the world, my perception of child death in cinema is going to be complicated. That is not the reason why it sinks the film into the trash however. It is that this is clearly meant to represent the Eucharist when it does, when at the Last Supper Christ said to his followers his body was the bread and his blood the wine, the moment that the border between a critique in religion and full extreme belligerence against notions of human decency takes place. A moment of moral reprehensible behaviour in making a film, an argument that even transgression in art should always have a morality to it. Even Buñuel's more blaspermpus moments treated religion with complexity and was more vendictive on the likes of priests instead. This moment in mother! is when Aronofsky may have made one of the worst films I have seen in the 2010s even if technically competent.

Abstract Spectrum: Grotesque/Mindbender/Weird
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None

Personal Opinion:
A pretentious, miserable and utterly irredeemable failure. One of the more insulting films I have seen from the 2010s and I was even prepared for its more notorious aspects ahead of time. And the part that I fear will happen is that people will point to the film as a great canonical work of surrealism and transgressive art. No matter how elitist this may sound, I suspect that some of the people who do so could have not been bothered to watch a good film like Un Chien Andalou (1929) even if on YouTube, letting this failure on many levels have credit when Aronofsky should be barred from making more films like this unless he had a drastic revaluation of his ethics. If mother! somehow manages to develop a cult in the next twenty years, I could turn into an Armond White figure quicker than sooner due to the utter misguided celebration of this embarrassment.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

The Bloodettes (2005)


Director: Jean-Pierre Bekolo
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Bekolo
Cast: Majolie as Adèle Ado); Chouchou (Dorylia Calmel); Emile Abossolo M'bo as Ministre d'Etat;  Josephine Ndagnou as Natou; Essindi Mindja as Essomba; Alain Dzukam Simo as Rokko Véronique Mendouga as Dr. Amanga

Synopsis: In an unknown African state in 2025, a Bloodette named Majolie (Adèle Ado) accidentally kills the Secretary General of the Civil Cabinet, a very important man in the government, after sex. Getting the assistance of another Bloodette and close friend Chouchou (Dorylia Calmel) to dispose the body, they find themselves pulled into the local custom of funeral mornings for important figures, which immediately causes problems with their attempts to dispose the SGCC, particularly as a corrupt male political figure in the government becomes aware of the pair and tries to sexually blackmail them in exchange for money. The women however have one advantage on their side, the ancient ritual of the Mevoungou, presided over by older sorceresses and their own abilities.

The Bloodettes, even if it isn't perfect, presents an ambitious idea of a Film Noir soaked political sci-fi film made in Cameroon. Shot on the streets rather than attempting an elaborate fantasy world, the film's minimal nature is for the better and for a sense of mood. Director Jean-Pierre Bekolo explicitly presents an African country of 2015, not dissimilar to 2005 Cameroon or  to most places within the 2010s. Barring the voice automation to drive cars and little details, post-colonial Africa is still stuck in a terrible scenario, corrupted by politics and industry regardless of the era. Whilst old depictions of the future, even the campiest, can be as rewarding Bekolo's intent for the film is greatly helped by shooting in real locations. That amongst the murky back streets and industrial areas, it's an environment which suits the sense that his lead heroines have to scrape to survive.

Patriarchy is still a huge issue within this world that is very bleak and inhospitable. The Bloodettes, Majolie and Chouchou, have the advantage of an ancient magical rite. Yes, said rite to a Western viewer can literally be described as a woman's own sex being magical. This ritual, the Mevoungou, is however a real custom that was eroded away by Western influences and the director discovered through anthropological documentation of his own Beti heritage. One of the biggest problems  so what may seem strange and trite for a Western viewer is actually a very political and feminist subject being brought to screen.

There is, without any of this context, a slight absurdity at first to the Bloodettes using their sexuality to force stun people a couple of times, through synchronous dancing and gyration. But that not only reveals a  conscious bias and shame in a viewer (even myself honestly) when talking of sexuality, but knowing that it's based on a real culture of female empowerment, lost in the wave of Western influence and practices like female genital circumcision, forces one to step out of this childish viewpoint. To realise how sex magic (magick) alongside ancient traditions like Mevoungou come from the state of reassessing the human sexual body as a force of great power. Its more significant as this is an African custom, not a Western one, and alongside the huge stumbling blocks in Western culture itself with sexuality, there's also the huge issue of how the West ostracises "exotic" customs behind our history of material social progression by showing it as another even within that culture's own history, forgetting that we're viewing a lot of this never actually within these countries. In this film's case as well, this is a topic with racial and engendered politics which means not knowing the context of the Mevoungou, which I only learnt of through writing this, places a viewer in danger of entirely dismissing a film as merely a cultural oddity when it's a cultural film in its own country with a very loaded context.

Two very strong women are our leads. Whilst they are likely in sex work, they are very strong figures looking out for themselves. Barring one shower scene, very little in terms of sexualisation of a male gaze is found, instead the sensuality of the protagonists theirs and in their control, both of their own bodies in front of others and the Mevoungou. Everything else is entirely about these figures trying to overcome corrupt male figures. Sometimes with their whits about them, like trying to convince a butcher that the  SGCC's body is good beef, eventually trying to acquire a body for the head when they find themselves in the midst of funeral morning customs. Then however they have the Mevoungou. An essay Re-Imagining West African Women’s Sexuality: Jean Pierre Bekolo’s Les Saignantes and the Mevoungou by Naminata Diabate describes that, yes, the Mevoungou is literally a Beti custom surrounding the female clitoris. That it has a profound magical importance which older and younger Beti women were participants of and gave their power with a literal spiritual edge over men. In this, even against the corrupt younger male politician with his own strategies, our heroines have their ancestral ritual to assist them, alongside a council of older women who can bend reality such as vanish in a blink of the eye.


If the film has a problem is that it's trying to flesh itself out as a fully built work but with some obvious problems with its structure. What happens in the plot does feel anaemic by the end, an attempt to rip off a corrupt politician losing a great deal without knowing its context in terms of feminist/folk cultural politics. Neither does it help that this involved awkward under-cranked fight scenes which don't help any production. That the subplot where morning very influential people have replaced night's entertainments could've been established further more too, especially as disposing a body is a huge part of the plot originally. Where The Bloodettes stands proud and can overcome these issues is its attitude and style. How stylish its low budget and economic look is, especially as its entirely shot at night, an atmosphere both in the dark streets and the harshness of indoor lighting. Even the almost Godardian cutaways, to a bill board with different statements on them commenting how different genres are not possible - such as horror when death is a party - mean a lot more on this viewing as interesting self-reflections on the content within, the director clearly pastiching genres on purpose. And of course there's its empowerment of women, and especially black women from a non-English speaking country, with this film both in its use of a cultural ritual for women that could've been lost in history and how it generally depicts its leads as very resourceful figures helping to push over the stain on their country's soul. Something which we are in dire need of more in cinema and preferably in an unconventional work like The Bloodettes, not a sanitised and toothless creation to appeal to bland white English speaking middle class communities like some of the worst films for tokenism are made for.

Abstract Spectrum: Genre Hybrid/Psychotronic
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None

Personal Opinion:
A gem. Imperfect but shining with originality. It's a film in dire need of rediscovery for this and as a capsule of both an environment and a folklore that, alongside being more progressive than some modern "progressive" ideals, is something that you wouldn't know of unless you had films like this, the Mevoungou and its importance for women of a specific African culture allowed to thrive onscreen and not seem like a mere relic. 


Saturday, 20 January 2018

See You In Hell, My Darling (1999)


Director: Nikos Nikolaidis
Screenplay: Nikos Nikolaidis
Cast: Vicky Harris as Elsa; Valeria Christodoulidou as Vera; Paschalis Tsarouhas as The Dead Man

Synopsis: Living in a purgatory all within a large house, childhood friends Vera (Valeria Christodoulidou) and Elsa (Vicky Harris) are struggling with their memories of before, a heist which ended poorly and returns back to them issues of jealously and animosity between the two women. It grows as the body in the pool (Paschalis Tsarouhas) starts walking around, a man both women are attracted to. That Elsa is still interested in the money they have adds to the growing tensions.

Nikos Nikolaidis is sadly an obscure secret. All the transgressive "New Weird" of Greek cinema that came to be in the 2000s, not just Yorgos Lanthimos but even subtler films like Chevaliar (2015) owes a debt to him. The differences between the sides is that Nikolaidis was a stylist, rejecting the cinema verité of the later directors in favour of exaggeration in style as much as content, a director of the sixties and seventies onwards who is chameleonic in production and unpredictable in what each film will be like, whilst still driven by clear obsessions. Sadly only one film of his has had availability and attention to it in a larger scale outside Greece, and is still obscure for many. Thankfully that film was Singapore Sling (1990), his infamous genre hybrid which could be seen as just a shock film - possessing violence, nudity, vomiting, BDSM, inappropriate rubbing with a kiwi fruit - were it not also a film noir pastiche with beautiful monochrome cinematography to die for. Skip over the end of the nineties and See You In Hell, My Darling rifts on that film's structure as a continuation. Two women, one man, some of the straight-to-camera monologues of the older film also by the actresses in character, but different still. Shot in colour and looking like a late nineties erotic thriller, but as with his other films, utterly against any predictable expectations.

The film never explicitly states where it is set. "Purgatory" is the only to describe where Vera and Elsa are, a place entirely confined to one house and a beach where moments of the unnatural puncture its nocturnal realm, the only other characters baring them and Paschalis Tsarouhas' role being a brief cameo by creepy, masked ambulance attendants, the environment aside from them  existing outside of mortal life. Flashbacks, in video, of a heist that went sour suggest as much, still tied down by the weight of their lives before. Vera encumbered by constant nausea and vomiting, Elsa obsessed with a jealously and continued desire for the money they acquired. Their beau played by Tsarouhas comes back in spite of having floated face down in the swimming pool for a long while, adding further tensions. From there it's difficult to define See You In Hell, My Darling as it plays not with large scale plot twists but small emotional dynamics over its length.


This is also where you realise why a film like and Nikolaidis' other work is likely been neglected so far despite the small cult around him. Singapore Sling was helped by a level of infamy, whilst still obscure. See You In Hell, My Darling is just as sexual, nudity and moments evoking a sensual relationship between the main female characters, but the story is more subjective. It's the type of film that's only starting to get more appreciated now the availability of cinema is slowly widening, not a film you can work out by simple big plot twists nor based on a simplistic drama as many mainstream art films. As a result you have to work with a more expressionist experience. Nikolaidis is an openly transgressive director and a corporal one obsessed with the human body in its form - thus someone goes to the bathroom only to puke up in response to the awful thing they witness - but he is also someone who likes his characters to be fluctuating. Morally grey figures who evolve and change over time, behaving in ways more realistic to the viewer themselves even if some of their acts are utterly surreal, not genre stock behaviour that are easy to archetype.

With this in mind, the performances from the main actresses especially are compelling. Vicky Harris and Valeria Christodoulidou have to do the heavy lifting for the film with only one other actor to work with. This is particularly a success as, exactly like Singapore Sling, they dominate the screen even if acting out scenes which be seen as tasteless or the director being a dirty old man if there wasn't a strength of conviction to their performances, allowing the pair to make such scenes make sense in the moment and far from contrived, dominating the screen and forcing us the viewer to follow them. This connects See You In Hell, My Darling to other later works of directors like Walerian Borowczyk or Andrei Zulawski, later pictures in their filmographies ignored or having been only started to be appreciated too where, even if they have their actresses commit to nude scenes or more transgressive plot moments, are dominated by actresses like Iwona Petry and Marina Pierro who take what could come off as humiliating moments and be dominant, always in these films the most complex and rewarding characters against the males and the actors' performances. It's the same here with Nikolaidis' film.


The style I admit could wrong foot viewers, as like those other directors mentioned (or others with filmographies barely in access like Raul Ruiz) Nikolaidis willingly changed in aesthetic and technical differences per decade like water in a stream bends to its form. Thankfully nothing in See You In Hell, My Darling is an embarrassing time capsule of the late nineties, a film which uses its limited sets and actors to an advantage in how it gives the world onscreen an uneasy wyrd atmosphere. Even objects that time stamp the film like the use of a VHS player are limited and feeling like they have a logic, the ghostly edge of an afterlife where the obsolete technology also goes to. The overly surreal aspects also work so well because the director merely has to represent them with ordinary objects that stick out strongly in appearance to the main environments, from weird masks or the wedding dress Elsa wears, all of them appropriate for a film which is meant to be a crime pastiche, turning it in on itself and still living up to its narrative of betrayal, firearms and poisons.  

Abstract Spectrum: Expressionistic/Psychotronic
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low

Personal Opinion:
Cinema which defies a genre and even dramatic expectations, likely to infuriate many, but as a unique blending of an erotic crime thriller with a purgatorial character drama this is imaginative and truly rewarding for me. That it is also a Greek film is itself a fascination, knowing that a country like Greece has such a complex and rich culture - from ancient Greek mythology and culture to films like the strange genre films to Nikolaidis - but is one that is severely under appreciated as an outsider looking inwards. Arguably the New Weird Wave of Greek cinema needs to call attention back to Nikolaidis as he personifies the country's defiance of country's defiance of conventionality with depicting the human condition.


Saturday, 6 January 2018

Pepperminta (2009)

Director: Pipilotti Rist
Screenplay: Pipilotti Rist and Chris Niemeyer
Cast: Ewelina Guzik as Pepperminta, Sven Pippig as Werwen, Sabine Timoteo as Edna, Elisabeth Orth as Leopoldine, Oliver Akwe as Kwame

Synopsis: Pepperminta (Ewelina Guzik) is a free spirit who has been taught to live life to the fullest by her grandmother, now a mechanical eye in a container, who also taught her to power of colour. With these in mind she starts to acquire allies in her goal to bring joy to the world.

Pepperminta, if one wants of a more known comparison, is Amelie (2001). However this is directed and written by instillation artist Pipilotti Rist, so rather than a man depicting a female free spirit, you have a woman's perspective which changes a lot of the attitude. Pepperminta is a sweet, soft-hearted film in which one character desires to bring the world to a better place, a mischief which involves her gaining the assistance of   a man kept inside by his mother due to perceived health issues, a woman who purposely dresses like a man and binds her breasts out of discomfort of herself, and an older woman who fears her encroaching death. Pepperminta acts before and after acquiring these allies is harmless, posting mail to hijacking a fancy restaurant, where such curious sights such as green spaghetti and a whole roast pig surrounded by Lego are created by her group.

Complimenting this is Rist's style, a perfect blending of old filmmaking techniques for the YouTube general such as stop motion, used for such memorable moments as police officers being assaulted by a sentient flock of fruit. It's a playful, fun style which thankfully never becomes coy and irritating. A huge factor is that Rist's reputation for colour in her work is on display, playing up the entire spectrum explicitly in the plot. Even in naturalist digital, the film is full of vibrant colour which plays onscreen.


however is not a family friendly film. Amongst dealing with subjects like death, it also explicitly tackles content breaking perceived taboos.  Menstrual blood, which Pepperminta collects in a goblet, is a subject for example rarely tackled let alone with characters eventually drinking it. That and nudity where stereotypes of bodily perfection are through out of the way. This is however where Pepperminta slips, a sense of seriousness within what should be fun and light, but also shows the ideas are juvenile rather than helping the viewer overcome their own fears. If it is going to tackle the taboos of menstrual blood, it never feels fully developed Pepperminta herself, whilst admirably played by Ewelina Guzik, could come off as utterly annoying, in danger of becoming the free spirit whose behaviour is actually counterproductive in helping people, risky and in cases like randomly licking random objects behaving not in ways to show individuality but wasting energy. There's also heavy handed moments which feel out of place even amongst the serious material. The police that try to catch Pepperminta evoke such antagonist figures in cartoons, but adding religious priests amongst the police and snooty people (likely evoking Rist's atheism from a protestant background) feels counterproductive to a film whose message should be above that, which should be thinking out of the box rather than going for obvious things such a character like Pepperminta would find absurd.

The bigger issue is that, it's not Amelie that's the biggest comparison, but Věra Chytilová's Daisies (1966) that comes to mind in comparison to Pepperminta. Another female filmmaker, but with two female characters named Marie I (Jitka Cerhová) and Marie II (Ivana Karbanová).  In terms of films, Daisies is one of the best ever made in the medium, and in context of having been made in the oppressive communist regime, makes Pepperminta look like a trivial First World Problem movie. It also feels like it has no teeth next to Daisies. Daisies is a fun film, but it's also aesthetically and technically on a higher level, and it's so much more liberating and transgressive, the kind where the Maries would mock Pepperminta's pretentions for improving the world. Whilst the message sounds nihilistic, Daisies was made in the context of a social environment such films deemed unhealthy and destructive for human beings.

It's a sweet film but it, unlike Pepperminta, isn't "cute" but a manifesto that was against a real target, whilst Pepperminta is targeting stereotypes as cheap targets with the same tone of a self health book. Pepperminta and her assistants take over a dinner hall; Marie I and Marie II in Daisies find that destroying it is far more constructive in being destructive. Pepperminta doesn't become cloying in emotion but it's still pretty childish, the latter having greater power and making Rist's sole feature length work minor.

Abstract Spectrum: Experimental/Expressionist/Whimsical
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None

Personal Opinion:
It was fun whilst it lasted, but Pepperminta does not stand up beyond looking really nice and colourful.


Friday, 29 December 2017

Blood Freak (1972)


Directors: Brad F. Grinter and Steve Hawkes
Screenplay: Brad F. Grinter and Steve Hawkes
Cast: Steve Hawkes as Herschell; Dana Cullivan as Ann; Heather Hughes as Angel
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #151

[Spoilers Throughout]

Synopsis: Herschell (Steve Hawkes) is a God fearing, everyday Joe and former Vietnam vet who just happens to be tempted by Ann (Dana Cullivan), the beautiful pot smoker who is less interested in the Bible than he or her sister Angel (Heather Hughes) is.  Her attempt to bring Herschell closer to her, with a special extra addictive narcotic, backfires as it mixes with an experimental chemical used at his new turkey factory job, asked to eat a sample turkey. The result leads to him become a half-man, half-turkey who has to feed on the blood of freshly lit up drug addicts.

"We live in a world subject to constant change. Every second, of every minute, of every hour, changes take place. These changes are perhaps invisible to us, because our level of awareness is limited..." If there was a statement appropriate to borrow as the blog's mantra, co-director/co-writer Brad F. Grinter in his constant Greek chorus narration within the film has material like this to work with. Even scrapping the bottom of the barrel as I do here, it's either coincidence or a universal thread that connects everything in art, where even z-grade material like Blood Freak speaks the same language of debating one's rational perception of reality. Especially when F. Grinter himself, eventually on an anti-drug and anti-chemical rant, having smoked throughout the filming of these scenes, starts to cough his lungs out to such a violent extent he cannot continue, the sort of legitimately uncomfortable moments most films would not include in the final print but he must've been stuck with, his black tar lunged retching adding to the strange circumstances of his conspiracy/environmental monologues.

The real weirdness to Blood Freak is not its reputation as a bizarre Christian anti-drug splatter movie but really its whole existence and what the director-screenwriters were trying to create here. These monologues, honestly, are the only truly weird moments of Blood Freak because they feel like they're directly from its co-creator's mind. The rest is far from the bizarre film I have read it to be.  You have to wait almost an hour for any gore, and baring one gristly leg removal involving an amputee actor and a prop table saw, most of it is generic neck slitting with the screaming looped for so long one of my relatives asked what I was watching from the other room. The anti-drug message is like any older (weirder) anti-drug films. And there's barely any truly Christian message to the material. Yes, there's a half-turkey man on his knees praying for salvation, there's not even scripture quotes and only the outline of redemption through Christianity. In fact I have to consider Blood Freak's reputation as a weird film really only comes from sceptics and atheists mocking its contrived take on faith.

That does need a tangent. Regardless of my own faith, spiritually inclined Agnostic who has never had resentment to Christianity as a belief system, I find especially reading some of the reviews of Blood Freak online really problematic for how snarky they are, an elitism that is compounded by the fact I seriously doubt anyone watched Blood Freak until Something Weird Video released it. Even a more infamous example of this type of seventies self produced Christian cinema - those produced by Baptist minister Estus Pirkle like If Footmen Tire, What Will Horses Do? (1971) - feel like the odd sideshows you cannot argue a whole nation's or whole world's Christian views on, like evaluating an entire zoo based on just the howler monkeys. The kind of films which are frankly used to depict American Christians like a sideshow freak show when its significantly more diverse than this, from The Passion of the Christ (2004) to Pacific International Entertainment releases, make some of these reviews a glib view in dire need of more focused one or just accepting the bizarre existence of a pro-Christian turkey-man premise that doesn't live up to that sentence's promise. Holy Ghost People (1967), a document of real American Christianity, this is not and its suspect what made a monster splatter movie the right idea to convince people off drugs. It's likely an excuse just to cash-in on the Christian productions of the time. but for every Church that might've booked this to screen, there's countless ones back in the seventies who'd looked at the distributor like they were insane.


It's far more interesting for me as an extreme example of American independent cinema of the period, one of the least defendable but still strangely sympathetic. It certainly was the case lead star/co-writer/co-director Steve Hawkes only contributed to the film for the money, paying off medical bills for a severe burn incident on a Spanish Tarzan film. F. Grinter I have no idea on in terms of his idea behind the film baring the fact he had Veronica Lake in her last role trying to preserve Hitler's body. Its real claim to fame is the failed decision to create a premise from three different areas of independent cinema from before and around its time. Anti-drug films were around at least from the thirties. Splatter films, which started in the sixties from Herschell Gordon Lewis, ironic considering main character is also called Herschell. And then the Christian film, which have been around in American cinema since the medium's beginning. This mix comes to us thanks to prolificacy of regional productions, still with us in the modern day, but with an advantage that you could still have celluloid film rather than cheap digital to film these oddities on back in the day. I've hesitated from speaking of the film in more detail yet as, to now use a cooking analogy, this is what happens when one uses stale ingredients and there's not even enough to reach the required weights needed for the final product. As a drug warning, it saddled against its turkey monster plot, adding absurdity before you get to the horrible image of Brad F. Grinter nearly dying from his coughing fit. The gore only comes into the last act, which is a long wait with the film's wooden acting and slow pace. The religious aspect is not that impactful unless just to be seen as a joke, which is not enough in itself and problematic as mentioned above.

With that last sentence in mind, with all the failure that is Blood Freak, left out in the Florida sun for too long, its compelling for me for the reason I'm watching these American exploitation films now. Feeling more like a dated exploitation movie dragged kicking and screaming into the seventies with bolted on gore and flares, I've never been interested in gore or sleaze but how with these films they're creators are clearly replicating the old Hollywood films of yesteryear but with budgets smaller than even the poverty row features. Most of them are the most threadbare of melodrama or old pulp genre if you examine them closely, this one definitely the melodramatic here. There's  humour in the papier-mâché turkey head Herschell eventually ends up wearing but what's more compelling is how, even before he starts grabbing people just after they've taken drugs (from weed to heroine) to bleed out, Herschell is treated as a victim of a horrible accident. Ann completely pushes Angel off to the side as she becomes his love interest, trying to rehabilitate him, even having a dialogue sequence where she wonders whether she would ever marry with him looking like this or how the children will look.

Whilst it follows a template of redemption that's stereotypical, it also means compared to other anti-drug films from before like Reefer Madness (1936) and Alice in Acidland (1969) this is so much more sympathetic, imagining Herschell as an already damaged war vet whose medical prescription turned to illegal drugs, and Ann after her severe mistakes redeeming herself, the pair becoming a happy couple. People will scoff with how contrived it is, but consider how absurd and cruel Reefer Madness was for its characters just smoking pot, Blood Freak is surprisingly humane for a contrived message movie. The fact Herschell's turkey man transformation is revelled just to be a dream caused by the mixing of the wrong chemicals is actually to the film's favour. Not only does it led to the only technically well made and inspired moment - which unfortunately means an actual turkey's head being lopped off off-camera, but with the surreal suggestion of Herschell being killed and eaten for Thanksgiving - but it emphasises a sense of redemption. When even this z-grade mess can have a heart it inexplicably brings out some sincerity even to something as hopeless as this, as the creators could've easily had a hellfire and brimstone ending. It begs the idea that such a folly like Blood Freak probably is a better snapshot of its creators' minds than anything remotely so-bad-it's-good, too sluggish and unrewarding expect for this.

Abstract Spectrum: Psychotronic/Weird
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None

Personal Opinion:
If it sounds absurd to find slivers of sincerity in pure exploitation, that's because Blood Freak is the type of American indie cinema where it's strange creation forces one to think where it came from. Too normal to be truly strange, next to other oddities dug up by the likes of Something Weird Video, but too weird in premise to have sanely been show at churches. Instead - for a Christian splatter film not dogmatic enough, nor gory enough - I found more reward in the film for being a bizarre hodgepodge. For others who don't normally watch these films, just avoid.