Sunday, 11 November 2018

Non-Abstract Review: Ultraforce (1995)


Screenplays: Marty Isenberg, Robert N. Skir, Martha Moran, Dennis O'Flaherty, Doug Booth, Bob Forward, Diane M. Fresco, Steve Gerber, Eric Luke and Richard Mueller
(Voice) Cast: Andrew Jackson as Prime; Alyson Court as Pixx; Catherine Disher as Topaz; Janet-Laine Green as Contrary; Rino Romano as Prototype; Peter Wildman as Ghoul; Rod Wilson as Hardcase

Synopsis: In a world where vampires, fire people living underground, Jack O-Lantern headed maniacs and evil doers in general threaten the world, a team of super powered "Ultras" form Ultraforce to stop them.

[Spoiler for a Major Plot End in the first three episodes]

A memory, from childhood when I fed on nineties children's animation and live action programming over multiple channels, from the BBC to American ones like Fox Kids to Nickelodeon, had lingered in my mind as has happened for many. An image without a context, little else known as is the case for many in such a circumstance, maybe something even you the reader can appreciate with a likewise image from a work you have no idea of the origins of; in my case, in which a boy develops a goo-like substance from his body and, when it swallows him up, turns him into Superman on steroids.

Looking on Amazon Prime1 finally revealed this image came from Ultraforce, an attempt at spreading the word on the characters of Malibu Comics that was kneecapped the moment the thirteen episode length series was released, cancelled soon after. Part of the growth of comic books culture into the nineties, Malibu was founded in the eighties and were growing, introducing the Ultraverse concept in 1993 to put together all their characters into one shared series, of importance as Ultraforce and the characters even making cameos here would be tied to it. Unfortunately, the comic books industry in 1994 took a sizable impact and Malibu's properties were bought up by Marvel Comics. Marvel attempted to reboot the Ultraverse, even bringing in their own characters like Black Knight and Juggernaut into the world, but many problems came to be. Marvel's own flagging work and creative decisions that went against the original Malibu fans didn't help. By 1995, when the Ultraforce series started, there were enough tensions and issues that it would be cancelled after those thirteen episodes, also the cause of the two season adaptation of Night Man (1997-9). By 1996/7 the Ultraverse was effectively killed off, and as the 2010s the only Malibu character who has actually appeared in a Marvel source is Topaz; once in the 1995 series an intergalactic Amazon who's abruptly introduced in the series dropping through an intergalactic warp hole at a sports stadium and confuses American football players as warring soldiers, as of Thor: Ragnarok (2017) a tiny role played by New Zealand actress Rachel House.

All of this admittedly is coming from someone whose knowledge of comic books in general could easily be replaced by a wiser expert, but at least in the small research I've done, the tale of Malibu Comics is a tragedy, Ultraforce for all the ways I'll count how bad the series is at least giving me a fascination for this company and their creations. Any creation, no matter how ridiculous, can be redeemed and the nineties are the same even if it was the era of comical amounts of pouches on characters, and too many holographic and gimmick issues inflating the market until it collapsed. For all the criticisms I'm going to level on the series I'd gladly own the toys (which did exist) and have them on my shelf even if second hand, my love for the gaudy bright coloured forms of nineties pop culture also marked by a sense of respect for any creator even of bad ideas, that no idea is too bad or stupid if the right version can be created, and that whilst a couple of these particular characters have ridiculous names or dangerously verge on copyright infringement, they actually have a lot that would be awesome to see in a better context.


Ultraforce itself was an attempt to celebrate the titular group - in 1993 Malibu, doing well just before 1994, wanted to capitalise on their existing characters by enforcing a collected, interconnected world by way of a comic where they teamed together, the exact idea as the Justice League for DC Comics or the Avengers (or various groups) have been for Marvel. Throughout the series characters, villains and heroes alike who had their own comics, cameo in one episode roles, and the success of the nineties X-Men animated series is visible at least in the beginning credits, mimicry in the heroes standing next to their own names for introduction and the strangely catchy techno theme where the only lyric is "Ultraforce!" screamed over and over again. If anything, whilst a peculiar bunch, Ultraforce has the right sense of the ridiculous in terms of heroes, though one of the sloppier traits of the series is that, whilst some character might have to be in the background for some stories, characters can disappear completely off-screen for whole episodes without rhyme or reason, a shame as they are a fascinating bunch to work with for stories.

Prime, the poster boy for Malibu, the figure I had remembered who is a young boy who can turn into a muscled giant, someone who gets the most storylines and, honestly, is an interesting character as he's an immature young teenager living with his family, the threat to his family jarring against him trying to keep his secret from his mother as one of the episode stories show, whilst playing up how his naivety makes him incredibly cocky and misguided, the worst thing possible when he's over-muscled giant in Prime form who can obliterate things by punching them. Hardcase, generic super strong hero whose ability to fly or not varies wildly per episode, is interesting at least as he's a leader of the team that were mostly killed or left in a coma, producing a hardening of him opinions, alongside also being an actor as a day job who uses his abilities for his fame. Topaz, a generic Amazon who, alongside the Professor Xavier of the group, a woman named Contrary, unfortunately leave the series with a nasty case of underwriting its female cast. Prototype, effectively Iron Man even in design only with a cocky youth being paid by a major company to helm a super armoured suit, and Ghoul the undead sidekick who I openly admit is useless, barring being invulnerable and being telepathic to the point he can communicate to the dead and even the entire Moon, but was one of my favourite characters for being the sardonic corpse who makes terrible puns, even making a Grateful Dead reference at one point. They are, for all the stereotypes, figures you could easily wring a good story from if anything.

I haven't described any of the episodes and won't even try to because, honestly, they're pedantic. Ultraforce the series is terrible; growing up with DiC Entertainment animated shows, I suspect that if I went back to some of the programmes of theirs I did watch properly many of the worst aspects of this superhero show would also be found in them, even the likes of Inspector Gadget which made a cultural impact. Whilst the plots vary in ideas, they eventually are what would happen if you had the action figures and bashed them together at the end over and over again; a lot of comic books usually end in good heroes punching evil villains, but even if I wasn't spoilt by Japanese television anime, this is not a well structure show in terms of scripts and animation. The scripts feel rushed here at points and the animation can be shocking especially in the later episodes, even something an illiterate in animation technique like me can witness seeing fighter planes literally being moved as slides across the screen. The stories, only over twenty minutes per episode, do not have breathing room or well plotted. I give Ultraforce some credit as some of the episodes are stories split over multiple episodes; especially the first three episodes where, follow a single plot involving the fire people under the Earth's surface stealing nukes, it kills off a young heroine named Pixx, a really brave move for a children's show as she sacrifices herself to save the day, brave regardless of the sloppiness of the plot and complete disregard even in superhero logic of how nuclear radiation works. However, after that, you have very simplistic plots; many not well thought out at all, many which waste time on explaining obvious things for no particularly good reason or just bad ideas.


It's entirely due to the charisma of the characters themselves, even when unintentional or calling each other nouns for names, that any claim to entertainment can be found. The episodes vary in who is used, and the cameos add more to this. The Strangers, another superhero team, appear in the final two part arch among a reoccurring plot thread of a mysterious bold of blue electricity striking a tram cart and turning many into heroes. One such figure, the aforementioned Night Man, appears in episode 7, a saxophone player (sadly with his music done in awful bedroom MIDI) becoming a body armoured vigilante with natural night vision, a cameo who ends said episode on top of a skyscraper in full costume playing a saxophone in one of the series' most (unintentionally) memorable moments.

The villains are also from various Malibu properties - an energy vampire named Rune (who appears twice) had his own comic, as did Sludge, a minor henchman here who was actually by all accounts a tragic figure like Man-Thing/Swamp Thing for Malibu in his own series. And then there's the character who steals the show for me, right from the sight of him in the opening credits animation, by the name of Lord Pumpkin, a giant Jack O'Lantern headed figure in a purple suit and magical powers whose voice actor was clearly enjoying himself, investing more in the lines by chewing the walls of the recording booth, and the bizarre introduction of being in a gang war over a fantastical narcotic with a regular gang, as mad as a plot as you could get.

The idiosyncratic and weird juxtapositions, a few mentioned above, are where any fun comes into Ultraforce when frankly most of the time it panders to a child audience way too much and feels like the screenwriters weren't reading the original Malibu comics to properly depict the characters. Even for all my jokes, these characters deserved better. Characters like this, even if looked down on as was the case here even if by proxy, deserved better than a really slap dashed production this poor. It's a strange case of having utter admiration for the materials, the accomplishment of finally figuring out what that strange image stuck in my head since childhood was, and being proud to say I saw all thirteen episodes, but openly admitting Ultraforce was a terrible viewing experience.


1) Although it wasn't appreciated when the show was pulled off in the middle of me viewing it, forcing me to look elsewhere; moments like that are what drive people to horde shiny discs and bootleg material, which helps no one.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

The Wild Boys (2017)

Director: Bertrand Mandico
Screenplay: Bertrand Mandico
Cast: Pauline Lorillard as Romuald; Vimala Pons as Jean-Louis; Diane Rouxel as Hubert; Anaël Snoek as Tanguy; Mathilde Warnier as Sloane; Sam Louwyck as Le Capitaine; Elina Löwensohn as Séverin(e)

Synopsis: Five boys (played by actresses Pauline Lorillard, Vimala Pons, Diane Rouxel, Anaël Snoek and Mathilde Warnie) are as extreme as you can get as delinquents - hooligans, blasphemers, lovers of literature, and "wild boys" who after raping and accidentally killing their literature teacher find themselves with a sea captain (Sam Louwyck) whose harsh behavioural punishment is contrasted by the strange island he leads his boat to. The island is a paradise with wonderous flora, but drastically changes a person physically when they stay there for a long time, something the current occupier Séverin(e) (Elina Löwensohn) can attest to.

[Spoilers Throughout]

Starting in the early 2010s, Bertrand Mandico has spend his career in short form films until The Wild Boys, now planting his idiosyncratic flag into a theatrical length feature I sincerely hope catches a lot of attention for him and allows his work to be known. He openly absorbed a lot of influences to make The Wild Boys - and research will show he'll openly discuss those influences even on little details - but he is however also his own person, one still hard for me to define but one that is very aesthetically rich, very transgressive but in a very pansexual form and, like Guy Maddin, pulls from various genres and influences openly. Unlike Maddin, the differences in his choices are themselves signs of his themes - Boro in the Box (2011), effectively his true debut was a perverse "biography" of Walerian Borowczyk, Living Still Life (2012) taking animation to its literal extreme with Elina Löwensohn (and the director himself) reanimating actual animal corpses, and The Wild Boys taking boy's own adventure storytelling but, in casting women as the boys, openly flaunting homoerotic, queer and feminised punkish sensibilities. It's like Derek Jarman's Sebastiane (1976) to find, clutch, any real tonal comparison; the punk sensibility but filtered through that similar queer slant and elegance, if to be his trademark in later features, is definitely a different attitude to Maddin if any...


There are also the little production differences. That, for his film which takes place on the sea and eventually a strange and curious island lost in the ocean, he actually did film at Réunion, in the Indian Ocean, and merely blended the real life natural landscape into his own worldview. That and the specific blend of the materials such as the casting of the Wild Boys themselves, including a couple of noticeable actresses like Vimala Pons, who play their roles completely straight, someone like Pons throwing herself fully into the most amoral and macho of the five wild boys, whilst everyone has very idiosyncratic stylistic ticks. This gender subversion as a major stylistic choice also leads to the plot itself.

The island itself, when finally introduced is a paradise, with flora Fantastic Planet (1973) would be proud of it with its living tendrils and woman shaped bushes to have sex with. In among all the explicit sexual references, said flora consists of various sight gags such as that bush's form or the phallic buds which you can drink very white liquid from for sustenance. Its fruit, hairy and slimy, is introduced very early on and is so explicit in sexual meaning it would be absurd for me to blatantly signpost, all coupled with the fact that eating said fruit and maybe other factors causes a literal "feminisation" of the male body, turning men into women. If there is a deeper message to The Wild Boys aside from being an aesthetic feast for the eyes, wrapped in its own world and form, it's this subversion through a plot McGuffin, as happened to Dr. Séverin(e) as played by Elina Löwensohn. The former titular star of Nadja (1994), and effectively Mandico's muse, plays a Henry Morton Stanley type in a white suit who turned into a women when he stayed on the island he and the captain found; having decided to reduce the amount of war and violence into the world, he decides to "feminise" it through the island's natural resources, starting with our five miscreant boys.


As from the beginning of Mandico's work, he's been openly transgressive; willingly push taboos which may offend some. How the boys got to this position is such a case; explicitly set in the early 20th century, so Mandico openly quotes from the streak of transgressive literature from the time as the boys, in grotesque genderless masks, accidentally kill their teacher when, having raped her in a toxic Dionysian frenzy and tied her to a horse, end up with said horse taking her off a cliff, not pulling any punches in the material from then on. Mandico however from then on takes it further to an equal opportunity mentality when, thinking they have escaped punishment and openly deciding to go with the Captain (Sam Louwyck) out of their free will, the boys learn to late his behavioural training places them his captives.

The gender subversion itself is part of this, the blurring androgyny of masculinity with breasts, the Captain not only having a map tattooed on his penis but one mere breast due to the effect of the island, and the actresses acting like boys with their short hair and costuming. Through what I have seen, Mandico is able to be very extreme but in a way that's never lurid, a fantastique streak through his films which has let him get away with his more extreme moments alongside his open desire for gender equality in the transgression. The later is a fine point that must be considered more often when dealing with transgression in cinema - it is a nuance that can drastically help a film, particularly as Mandico gives all his actresses in his films very good roles, in among equal opportunity full frontal nudity and in this particular case the best example in all cinema, of any genre, of someone's penis inexplicably falling off and having to be buried on the beach. Whilst he will offend, he offends with disregard for gender binaries.


Tonally, the comparison to Guy Maddin is apt, although you imagine Jack Smith if he had a budget would want to make films this glamorous - the monochrome aesthetic intercut by hazy coloured sequences of neon purples, blues and other striking colours reminiscent of silent cinema aesthetic Maddin uses but with Smith's transgression and Mandico's own grit. That's strange to think, considering especially Maddin has gotten away with transgressive material throughout his own career, but as much of it is the matter of fact nature - Mandico shows nonchalantly what Maddin exaggerates with a sense of humour. Alongside the French fantastique displayed here it's definitely his trademark.

His philosophy for all this? Punk, as mentioned, feminist definitely, as the actresses are a huge factor to The Wild Boys' success in both their committed acting and the gender subversion in plot and iconography shown. As the boys, they are pretty young men but dangerous, wild energy coursing through their veins which lashes out in dangerous ways, all five with distinct personalities. The Captain adds more as a combative figure tormenting them - more perverseness with his tattooed penis but a complex trajectory as a hard, cruel man who yet loves his pet dog and is revealed to have an honourable purpose to his cruelty, even if it involves nearly strangling young boys to death with collars on a boat which can be pulled in. And Elina Löwensohn strides around like a living colossus - she, with a healthy career alongside her Hal Hartley work and newer films like this or Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's Let The Corpses Tan (2017), having roles like this one she can be proud of.


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

Personal Opinion:
From his debut, around the time of Boro in the Box, Mandico has started perfectly. Arguably a film like Boro in the Box is worthy enough to be a debut even at only forty minutes, but The Wild Boys would be a perfect way to introduce him to many, with a combination that'd appeal to both cult and art house audiences. The obvious question is whether Bertrand Mandico will ever get wider recognition, and what he will do now he's finally made a feature; the question of what a second film will be like, (and hopefully he'll make a second theatrical length film), is effected as much by what ideas he still has and what he can do as a follow on. Now I have utter admiration for him, coupled by grievance in the difficulty now in seeing his other work, it'll be interesting if he continues or if The Wild Boys is sadly a one-off.


Sunday, 4 November 2018

Non-Abstract Review: Reanimator Academy (1992)


Director: Judith Priest
Writers: Benton Jennings and Judith Priest
Starring: Steve Westerheit, Connie Speer, Richard Perrin

Synopsis: Divided into two segments, Reanimator Academy begins with frat house member Edgar Allan Lovecraft, a mad scientist out-of-place among the hard partying Delta Epsilon Delta Fraternity, developing a reanimation serum and bringing the burnt severed head of a comedian back to life. The second half, when this serum is wider known, unfortunately leads a pair of gangsters to Lovecraft's doorstep, demanding him to resurrect one of their prostitutes and moll Hot Lips.

[Spoilers Throughout]

Films are strange - especially when you accept that, for every legitimate piece of art, they are a produce that despite their expense are churned out like sausages and as a result, when that process goes amiss, it shows in films that make little sense or end up as peculiar viewing circumstances. Drop down into no-budget cinema, when you can have access to straight-to-VHS era cinema let alone when DVD came to be, and for those who try their hardest, and those who managed to succeed, there's stuff like Reanimator Academy that exists right at the bottom in the nebulous realm Bleeding Skull is usually an expert in rather than myself. I cannot believe I've stepped on a sibling of Redneck County Fever (1992), a "comedy" about Bill and Ted stoners standing by buildings with a southern accent or two, but here it is. Produced by David DeCoteau, if the credits are right, shot on VHS, and with one of the leads of Redneck County Fever having a small cameo, a frat house member who makes the ill-advised decision to drink the lead scientist's fish tank of chemicals. I hope it's the same character, creating a small multiverse of merely two films.


Openly, shamelessly, taking its ideas from Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator (1985), this would be the extreme of After Last Season (2009) if not for the fact that film had sets with cardboard MDI machines and a sterile, vague acting style contributing to its own unique atmosphere. Reanimator Academy is even below that film in style, a home movie where people pretend to be Herbert West from Re-Animator and, bizarrely, two 1940s gangsters from a slapstick comedy. As with Redneck County Fever, the tone is a stilted one where people act in ordinary environments and outside locations on the street - this has a little bit more budget due to the bit of prosthetic effects involved, but those are minimal or visibly papier-mâché. It's not an insult from my part to point that out, or the mannequin heads used indiscriminately for the series of decapitation punches that take place later on in the film which I will explain later, rather describing to you that this is the equivalent to a home movie with genre tropes added to the visuals you yourself might make, but was released in commercial form so took that aesthetic there as well.

In this case, our Jeffrey Combs stand-in resurrects a bad stand-up comedian - in this world Ed the head, as he dubs himself, is one of the funniest of his kind but, whilst he's funny occasionally, the stand-up routine definitely isn't. As the first half of the film is mostly about this plot point, this character's the one I have to talk about the most. Ed the Head, barring these scenes, is nonetheless the more animated, ironically in a cast of amateurs, who try but were given very broad comedic moments and odd characters to work with whilst the actor voicing the fake severed head gets the most from his material. The two gangsters feel out of place out of them all, just from their names from a Dick Tracy pastiche, one a clown who is naive and dumb, the other shorter and vicious. They, imitating gangster accents but very amateur in performance, emphasise the weird juxtaposition of inert filmmaking with broad comedy. Occasionally they work but only from charm of them being out of their depth, when the larger of the two confuses slang for offing a person continually in one sequence, but mainly it's with dead air as with a lot of the film's tone in general.


Annoyingly a huge part of this comedy is sexism as well as, when the resurrection serum is used on women, such as the girlfriend of the lead Delta Epsilon Delta Fraternity member when she falls over on the street and dies instantly, it turns them into shrews. This emphasises this strange antiquated air to the material, a shrew an archetype of a nagging and snapping female character that is critical of everything the males in a story do, and has really died out in comedy over the decades for good reason. How this became the gag in this film is to debate, and I have to admit when it comes to Hot Lips as a resurrected zombie sex worker, the actress playing her takes the archetype and gladly chews the scenery in an entertaining way, but it does bring a nasty stain to the material. Its stranger as, due to the plot, the vicious shorter gangster ends up accidentally stabbed with the cure, a symbolically problematic idea of a feminising agent, which turns him into a weaker figure the moll can push around in her shrew state. It's weird itself, a problematic and curious aspect that in a film like this unfortunately stands out more as it's one of the only really big aspects to be able to talk about Reanimator Academy through in greater detail. If there's any semblance of entertainment, alongside the film in general, it's through Hot Lips and the plot point that, reanimated, she's angry and able to punch men's (fake) heads off with considerable ease; so many in fact that the men following her have to start collecting them in their car, an absurd progress the more it continues.

Most will find Reanimator Academy painful - even for no budget film fans, who have tempered patience with movies like this accepting their limitations, this does feel like an extreme too far in how little actually takes place, the second preview to set up the second half (as if both parts are two different exploitation films with Cookie Monster narration) having to repeat scenes from the first, not helped by not a lot in the slightest having actually taken place. If anything, Reanimator Academy is a reminder that, if you step outside the template of Hollywood cinema, even the standard of what we presume of cinema, filmmaking is an industry which has many individuals producing work within it through various strands and communities, some of which varies in technical quality to these extremes. It's a humbling experience...but when you suffer through Ed the Head's stand-up, you also realise this film is better to think of then actually experience.


Wednesday, 31 October 2018

A Bertrand Mandico Double Bill: Boro in the Box/Living Still Life (2011/2012)


Boro in the Box
Screenplay: Bertrand Mandico
Cast: Elina Löwensohn as Walerian Borowczyk (Voiceover) / La mère; Thierry Benoiton as Jerzy; Jacques Malnou as Grand-père; Elise Hote as Emilia; Laure Lapeyre as Olga; Benoît Serre as L'homme du train; Tom Cholat as Boro enfant; Ruben Lulek as Boro enfant; Audrey Le Corre as La muse; Mika'Ela Fisher as Ligia

Synopsis: A perverse tribute, in vignettes in alphabetical and chronological order, which tells an alternative take on the life of controversial Polish animator and director Walerian Borowczyk.

For the occasional dull quasi-art house films I've put up with, MUBI's streaming gift for the most part has been a gift that has been worth the investment. Sadly it has a thirty day time limit on films, including those you may have difficulty ever seeing again, but to bastardise a famous quote it is better to have watched a film than to never have seen it at all, and if that's the way they were able to access some of the titles they've collected, so be it a necessary evil. It's definitely the case as they've introduced me to directors I'd never heard of but fully deserve coverage as filmmakers of the abstract. One was Khavn, the punkish one-man band of Philippine cinema, now there's Bertrand Mandico from France, a French director who made his first short film in 1999 but only really started to become productive in his work from 2010 onwards, only making his theatrical debut with The Wild Boys in 2017 and making short films beforehand. Parallels can be made to Guy Maddin, in his implementation and open influence to older cinema, but he is his own figure and if it was easier to see his work, defining this distinction would be a hell of a lot easier for me.


We begin with Boro in a Box, his most famous work in which it loosely interprets the life of Polish director Walerian Borowczyk from birth to throughout his career in A-to-Z format, a visible reference to Borowczyk's own short filmmaking like Grandmother's Encyclopaedia (1963). It's a loose interpretation of his life as some eyebrows will be raised high, on display openly its own fantastical and perverse tale where Borowczyk is a man born as a box, a literal Kino-Eye, whose mother has an erotic dalliance with a horse briefly and his career here consists of long warehouses of naked people he films with a living Cronenbergian film camera. Yet wherever Walerian Borowczyk is, he'd probably appreciate the tone, for Borowczyk was a fascinating figure. Beginning in stop motion - (probably the most debatable moment for me is how Mandico dismisses co-director Jan Lenica of the early Polish shorts completely) - Borowczyk was championed for his animation and then his earliest steps into live action feature cinema in the likes of Blanche (1972). Than he was ostracised, until the recent and justly needed critical evaluation in the 2010s, for decades when he switched to erotic cinema with 1973's Immoral Stories, which he stayed in through his career for the most part afterwards but tragically made him a pariah for many, hence that necessary critical evaluation in the 2010s was a vital necessary, making converts like myself when I witnessed his cinema to be precise, full of texture and elegance, sensual and openly transgressive as a virtue.

So he might respect Mandico depicting him, as mention, born as a literal box on an umbilical cord whose limbs and torso grow out when he grows up, an obsessive who films when his father gives him a living camera and tries to find himself in this raw, dirty world of texture, grimness and explicit sexuality. Beautifully shot in black-and-white, but openly perverse from the get-go, Mandico springs out of the gate with his intentions following Boro's conception, his mother with her sister in the woods, playing "angels" where they choke each other half to death until they see them, only for her future husband to appear dressed as a tree and in an uncomfortable blur of molestation and consensual sex seduce her. This transgression, thankfully, is wide and spans further to deliberately offend anyone - between full frontal male and female nudity, Boro having a similar situation with a man in a train cart who'll become his collaborator, his mother (Elina Löwensohn, who also provides Boro's voice in the narration) having a sensual interaction with a horse, which is explicitly referencing Borowczyk's The Beast (1975) both in its human and beast sex and, in the silhouette of phallus, the more shocking moment of that film at the beginning where Borowczyk filmed an actual horse castration onscreen. The transgressive streak, in any other context if the tone was wrong, would offend many but Mandico manages to make it feels appropriate. It would, in another context, rub people the wrong way how Borowczyk is treated but, like when Isabella Rossellini and Guy Maddin depicted her father Roberto as a giant stomach in My Dad Is 100 Years Old (2005), it feels appropriate, here gleefully playing to Borowczyk's desire even before his later erotic films of playing with transgression and subversion.


Whilst it's a fantasised story, the tale of Boro fits the real man named Borowczyk, who was respected for his animation and art films only to be damned for his turn to erotic cinema, Boro the Box Headed and his living camera here becoming marginalised in his own world as tragically Borowczyk was, but neither compromising. And aesthetically Mandico's work is incredible, a dream-like but grimy world where dirt, salvia, and various forms intermingled with a fetishisation of bodies and objects Borowczyk also had. Mandico's clear trademarks, whilst following from influences, is a pansexual transgression in the nude bodies onscreen, and depicting Boro having a sexual experience on a train with a man who'd assist him with his films. That and the overt fantastical details which are constant throughout, such as the aforementioned camera, or Boro seducing a woman at a young age with feather on sticks coming out of pockets in his box, leading to her nude body as a giant projection over a fireworks display and Boro running below back and forth to bring her to orgasm.

And it's clear, even as the first Bertrand Mandico work I have seen, that starting properly with his career here onwards he's built and honed his craft over many years, only finally making a feature length film in 2017 with The Wild Boys and, like a few favourite directors of mine, using the years to churn out shorts that are obsessed with interests he can draw from with greater depth for later feature films if he so wishes to. Boro's tale, even in only forty minutes, is a life fully fleshed out, from recounting experiencing from inside his mother's womb her falling down a cliff to returning home to his parents one last time after decades in France, and in spite of its short length it argues of being as expansive and dramatic as any film considerably longer then it.


Living Still Life

Screenplay: Bertrand Mandico
Cast: Elina Löwensohn as Fièvre; Jean-Marc Montmont as L'homme

Living Still Life, quoting Walt Disney is French in an intertitle at the beginning, takes animation to an extreme when a woman named Fièvre (Elina Löwensohn) acquires dead animals in the countryside and animates on a giant canvas in her home. It's immediately eye catching, as befitting the quotation this 2012 short looks like a live action Disney film in colour and bright fantastical flora...only to have an eerie, disturbing yet magical story take place that feels like a dark fairy tale. One where a ritualistic act, done four times over four acts, lead to Mandico actually animating dead animals as stop motion creatures.

From https://67d860664f4b00793cde-967809c7cbb0f14b

As someone who has brushed against thanatophobia, they are very sobering scenes. Powerful, but knowing (unless an incredible practical effects artist was involve) that real animal corpses were used effected even me and would definitely be unsettling for some, worthy of warning even if the character of Fièvre attaches flowers to the burst open stomach of a dog. As with Boro in the Box, the production is incredible, also even in terms of the music in his work, between the at-times creepy score used for Boro in the Box to here appropriately magical but befitting its effective content. All of this builds to when Fièvre comes aware of a man who spies on her through the acts, someone who [Spoiler Alert] wants her to animate his recently deceased wife, synchronising to her own fantasy of animating a dead woman she directly tells the audience in the first scene of the short. [Spoiler Ends]
It would be criminal not to mention actress Elina Löwensohn at this point, effectively his muse since she started working in his films since Boro in the Box to The Wild Boys. Already a striking figure physically and as an actress in the performances, I was surprised when something clicked in my memory and realised she was the titular Nadja of Michael Almereyda's 1994 spin on the vampire story, having gone from that film over the years into a fascinating run of films with the likes of Hal Hartley to a variety of idiosyncratic directors, the kind of career that'd get ignored barring a few major films like Schindler's List (1993) but for those in the know (and when you see films like Living Still Life) command respect especially as she is great in both Mandico films I am covering. That she works with Mandico now is proof of his abilities, as Boro in the Box demanded a lot from her beyond the nude scenes whilst still treating her toroles actors would die for, in a mere short like Living Still Life providing a complicated character in just a short amount of time. Together, alongside Boro in the Box, it paints a great painting of the pair as collaborators.

Abstract Spectrum:
Boro in the Box: Fantastical/Grotesque/Surreal
Living Still Life: Eerie/Fantastical

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None):
Boro in the Box: High
Living Still Life: None

Personal Opinion:
In just two shorts, Bertrand Mandico stood out and immediately won me over with his work. I only hope The Wild Boys, his theatrical length debut, makes his work more easily accessible in the future. 


Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Climax (2018)


Director: Gaspar Noé
Screenplay: Gaspar Noé
Cast: Sofia Boutella as Selva, Romain Guillermic as David, Souheila Yacoub as Lou, Kiddy Smile as Daddy, Claude Gajan Maull as Emmanuelle, Giselle Palmer as Gazelle, Taylor Kastle as Taylor, Thea Carla Schott as Psyche, Sharleen Temple as Ivana, Lea Vlamos as Lea, Alaia Alsafir as Alaya, Kendall Mugler as Rocket, Lakdhar Dridi as Riley, Adrien Sissoko as Omar, Mamadou Bathily as Bats, Alou Sidibe as Alou, Ashley Biscette as Ashley, Vince Galliot Cumant as Tito, Sarah Belala as Jennifer

Synopsis: Set in the nineties, a troupe of dancers is isolated in a building away from civilisation, rehearsing for an American tour. Unfortunately, on the night of the final celebration party, someone has spiked the punch bowl with LSD...

[Spoilers Throughout]

Climax is a difficult film to judge. I am glad, for the first time I have seen a Gasper Noé film in the cinema, to have seen Climax on the big screen. My emotions may seem contradictory or even erratic however. The truth is that Climax itself is a fascinating film, one certainly memorable and rewarding if bad descents into hallucinatory hell are your desired prize, but leavened in artistic and moral flaws which directors like Gasper Noé need to be slapped out of doing lest they become boring, artistically problematic and a waste of time. The truth is Climax is a film I admire, but I'm sick of this nihilistic extremist cinema as it's now a few decades when Noé and his type started in the nineties, now to the point it's becoming gauche and artistically drying out. It's not surprising, among his contemporaries of the French Extremist movement, Bruno Dumont went into comedies, and the moment Noé's incredible technical style fails to win you over, he'll hit a backlash from fans whether the films are good or not for justifiable reasons.

Of course there's also the issue that with so many films as bleak as Climax existing, one has to ask if there's a detrimental effect on viewers which needs to be started to steered away from, a destructive influence subconsciously which Noé shouldn't be blamed for, but finds himself unfortunately within when so many films take on this sense of nihilism of the human species as Climax does, imagining that when acid ends up in the punch bowl, a group of dancers end up descending into madness, already established as petty and sex obsession in many cases before they've had the Mickey Finn. The stranger thing is that, despite being very basic to a potential fault, merely about this scenario with just some semblance of character building in-between, Climax has had very positive reviews even from critics who'd probably hate him, which makes this concern more significant to bring up now. I cannot for the life of me, in honesty, see how the film's gotten so many 5 star reviews on Letterboxd, let alone from professional critics, but I admit as much as my concern with Noé spinning his wheels tiredly is tempered with admiration with what Climax does get right.


Structurally, I've always admired Noé, who has completely disregarded the conventions of how even opening and ending credits are presented, here as well the opening credits the ending ones, as well as that you only get the proper opening credits, visual symbols for staff like Enter the Void (2009), after a long time with the characters already in this hellish chamber piece and the LSD in the punchbowl finally kicks in. And for a beginning, Climax starts very well, beginning with video interviews for each character, surrounded by books on the left and videotapes on the right of the television screen where they're played I was rubber necking to get all of, of every character and a little about them. The initial set-up, bookended by legitimately well performed and shot dance sequences which suggests a new calling for Noé, are the best moments of the film, catty dialogue between dancers which Noé intercuts between different people and topics of conversation with a clear sense of geography, even able to walk a tight rope with some of the dialogue being incredibly un-PC and potentially offensive as well as much of it being funny too. Noticeably, alongside being a great group of dancers alongside actress Sofia Boutella, the cast's diverseness is of note when many films do not have this varied a group in characters let alone casting - Muslim, Caucasian and black, German emigrate, gay and heterosexual dancers, possibly bisexual members of the trope, male and female, alongside a brother and sister, and a mother who is a former dancer with her young son. It's a varied group, all idiosyncratic to an advantage, and knowing the film was not a long production and used a lot of improvisation has actually led to some of the most interesting dialogue moments from Gasper Noé. Frankly, his dialogue and characterisation has always been his greatest enemy, so this advantage here is one he should probably stick to from now on.

The film's divisive nature for me is when the LSD kicks in, when Noé's worst tendencies (as with all "extreme" directors) to tack on violence and showing human beings as awful creatures. It's trite, and between a pregnant member of the dance troupe being battered about to the signposted Chekov's electrical panel with a small child, Noé's nastiness is his worse vice. Neither were the cryptic intertitles with their amateur philosophy going to win any favours, as Noé is not Jean Luc-Godard, his flirtatious with this from Irreversible (2002) on always mockable as if he started wearing a beret in publicity shoots. And with this you also get the major catch with him as well that, described as the William Castle of extremist cinema, his ballyhoo alongside his nihilism causes me to roll my eyes as much as find moments to admire him. He's survived as much by his hyper visual style, as with many extremist directors, but if he slipped he'll be utterly pretentious and offensive. Hence why I always preferred Enter the Void, his one great film which for its flaws is admirable for being a truly unique and idiosyncratic one-off anyone should experience.


Climax has passages which could've been the same - if Noé wasn't obsessed with the degradation, the visual experience of a terrible LSD trip as executed with the help with cinematographer Benoît Debie would've be exceptional. The quiet, languid nightmare we have for passages, shot in what feels like one takes with hidden cuts, usually following actress Boutella as she is trying to keep her sanity but lapsing into freak outs, would've been enough by itself without trying to replicate Possession (1981) and one of its infamous scenes or the crasser tangents. In fact, because of this, Climax misses out a huge idea except for moments in how, as dancers, the group becomes accidentally involved in a giant ritual. As the narcotics cause them to move in choreographed ways, their worse thoughts coming out or sexual passion to appear or for them to become stuck in ritualised moments stood on the spot in a random corridor, the film is at its best alongside the atmospheric harsh coloured lighting and the soundtrack, skipping between time appropriate songs by the likes of Daft Punk and Aphex Twin which suit each moment.

Instead Climax becomes over-the-top and even Debie, one of the my favourite cinematographers, contributes to one of the worse creative decisions of the film by having the entire ending depicting in an upside-down camera shot. On a giant cinema screen, it's a terrible creative design where you cannot absorb the visual information as necessary and it's also obnoxious. Bad decisions like this plague Noé's career a lot, and alongside how tiring his 'fuck-the-world' nihilism is, especially now he's in his fifties, I find myself stuck between Climax's virtues but also his terrible creative decisions and poor viewpoints of humanity by way of exploitative content. It's an issue to raise with those who helped him - Vice Magazine contributing to a producer's credit, Arrow Film distributing the film in the Uk - as there could be a point where people have had enough of Gasper Noé's style, not sustaining enough good moments, and start jerrying them as a result. More so as more rewarding and braver directors I've found - [as of 2018 the likes of Philippine's Khavn to France's Bertrand Mandico] - don't get this level of distribution and hype when they probably deserve instead of Noé.

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

Personal Opinion:
Gasper Noé is someone I will have to talk about in terms of abstract cinema, especially as the best moments of Climax are appropriately freakish and potent. The worst moments of Climax however show I will only write of Gasper Noé in a begrudging manner, a man whose portrait appears when you look for "frustrating" in the dictionary.  


Thursday, 18 October 2018

Non-Abstract Review: Tokyo Vampire Hotel (2017)

Director: Sion Sono
Screenplay: Sion Sono
Cast: Ami Tomite as Manami; Yumi Adachi as Empress; Megumi Kagurazaka as Elizabeth Báthory; Kaho as K; Shinnosuke Mitsushima as Yamada; Akihiro Kitamura as Gen; Ayumu Yokuyama as Dre

Synopsis: The last days of humanity are upon us, as a centuries old conflict between two clans of vampires, the Dracula clan and the Corvin clan, escalates when the Corvins plan to trap a small group of humans as their permanent, cultivatable food source. In the midst of this is Manami (Ami Tomite), who finds herself pulled from ordinary human life when she learns she has the blood of Dracula within herself.

[Spoilers Ahead]

A great sense of excitement was felt finally seeing Tokyo Vampire Hotel. Also trepidation to be honest as, considering Sion Sono has had a spottier record from 2010 onwards, this could've turned into a dud. It neither helps that, out of the gate, the first episode of his Amazon Prime commissioned mini-series is terrible. It set up all the worst aspects of Sono that have come up in his work over the last few years, an abrupt jump into a world full of clichéd horror tropes made worse by the sci-fi touches added. The grotesque violence Sono has in his films is here too and is awful, problematic in how it gleefully delights in a woman in a Goth Lolita dress entering a restaurant with firearms and killing the human beings with relish after dealing with a group of vampires, the flippantness and "coolness" off-putting in works like this even as someone who defends transgressive and ero-guro tropes in art, boredom as well when she excessively stabs a person or two with a fork over and over to death. Thankfully, blissfully, Tokyo Vampire Hotel is not this pilot episode. It's still excessively gory, and gets more over-the-top in the amount of fake blood spilt, but it also returns to the type of films I liked by Sono in Strange Circus (2005) or Suicide Club (2001), strange tales with tangents where genre tropes get mangled in weird and fascinating ways.


It helps this is a mini-series. I have no idea what the feature length version, which cuts this ten episode series down to 142 minitues (!) would be like, but the mini-series as a whole feels less like the stereotype of cult content that is sold to Western viewers but closer to the sincerer Japanese genre films, ironic considering this was sponsored for Western viewers, but probably influenced by the length of the material, forcing Sono's hand in having to have more than the gore on display. At least from episode two onwards the series already gets interesting, skipping years earlier to a human girl given the blood of Dracula being raised in an adoptive family, specifically losers chosen by a literal neighbourhood of vampires to take care of her or they got quickly replaced with other foster parents. From there, weaving the life of Manimi, cursed to been changed by her vampire's blood on her 22nd birthday, and the conflict between the Dracula and Corvin clans, it used its length to expand to include more side characters and events. It can intercut the action and gore with more personality building dialogue scenes, drama which was found in the likes of Suicide Club and made Sono's films stand out as much as his lurid and bizarre set pieces.

The material itself is generic on the surface, vampires versus vampires with a special "one" figure in the centre. Unleashed onto an unsuspecting Amazon Prime viewership this would be weird by itself, especially as Sono now is decorating his films in bold primary colours post-Antiporno (2016), appearing especially for the main building the film is set in, the titular hotel which is actually the lower half of one of the Corvin vampire elders, her children feeding her through a hole in herself what cannot help but come off with vaguely sexual in connotations. What I was glad for however is that, lost in his films over the last few years but flourishing here again, is his eccentricity which is fed by the longer template for the storytelling. The actual plot - that the Corvin clan have humans trapped, pretending a nuclear winter has taken place outside to force them to copulate and breed as their cattle - is merely a backdrop for all these characters, even the villains, to have quirks and issues to deal with. Little touches, like the announcer at the Corvin's lair being way too enthusiastic as he order humans to procreate, or the fact he can still have moments of actual seriousness in-between, mean a lot more when in the last few films I've seen he's not been able to balance seriousness and humour properly as he could in epics like Love Exposure (2008). That this is a major step for Sion Sono in terms of the mainstream spotlight was likely a factor as, befitting the material, he convinced Amazon Prime to let the production shot in Romania too which proved to be in favour of the film, the use of real castles and the Salina Turda salt mine proving worthy production design without much hassle.


The series could've been fewer episodes actually, as the middle episodes can lag at points or repeating events like the humans trying to escape the hotel multiple times, but the size of the cast allows interesting factors to come into play nonetheless. That even the villains have sympathies is successful even if it's a few more character details rather than in-depth - one of the main Corvin clan members, Yamada (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), was given by his father to the clan in exchange for a political career where he becomes president of Japan in the current time period, enforcing a hatred of life only softened by his romance with Elizabeth Báthory (Megumi Kagurazaka, Sono's wife and argubly muse). In contrast, the Dracula clan and others have an amorality which, despite my issues within the first episode, plays to interesting dynamics, such as with K (Kaho), a Dracula clan member with both sympathy but also utterly ruthless, making her relationship with Manami, the figure stuck with horrifying abilities about to grow on her twenty second birthday, more complicated. There's also humour, as in the case of Báthory's "mother", depicted rarely with the actress in normal form, but either as a head inside a practical effect or a shrunken stop motion not as tall as a doll's house. Even the whole factor of one of Corvin clan being the actual hotel is played with a legitimately (but well executed) spectacle in between her walls, witnessing the humans fed into her in a never ending orgy of stabbing and smearing blood on themselves that, barring one change in the lighting style, would be if you let Gasper Noe direct the Dante's Inferno.

The moment Tokyo Vampire Hotel fully succeeds however is when, out of ten episodes, episode seven has the actual climatic battle, most of the episode a bloody spectacle where almost every major figure dies at the end. The last three, less than thirty minutes each, leave survivors both of the human and vampire sides awkwardly picking up the pieces of their lives in the hotel, without masters and eventually eating at the makeshift restaurant in the centre hall with a comradery of friendship, staying locked in the hotel as their whole world. Even if there is still insidious plans afoot, these last three episodes are why I eventually liked the whole mini-series entirely, building upon characters (the tragic victim of circumstance in Manami, a new character who is the only teenager among adults who questions her environment) to a chamber piece which adds a great deal. Including a pitch perfect end twist which is hilarious, where the least expected people barge through a door, looking like an actual pair of old men than police officers, and an ending which dabbles in the metaphorical in a way that was completely perfect. This conclusion was exactly the right way to end Tokyo Vampire Hotel, and proved a relief having found myself disillusioned in terms of the quality of Sion Sono's recent output. This mini-series, probably the work more will see over others, has proven then successful for his reputation and for individuals like myself who yearned for those older titles in his filmography.