This is a rare weekend without any big new CGI-dominated Hollywood superhero, sci-fi, or other action spectacle opening—though god knows there’s no lack of ‘em available, with movies based on games (Super Mario, Dungeons & Dragons), violent franchise entries (Evil Dead, John Wick) and FX-laden supernatural blowouts (The Pope’s Exorcist, Renfield) occupying most of last weekend’s box-office Top 10. That bounty doesn’t do much for me, however, and I like fantastical cinema… at least in theory. The problem is that for decades now, the majority of such genre films in theaters tend to be overblown, essentially juvenile, and cut from the same few lookalike cloths. It’s great to explore fictive outer space—I’d just prefer it not be the over-traveled Marvel or DC universes.
Fortunately, there is a lot of imaginative room for different kinds of screen fantasy, and some primarily non-mainstream filmmakers do still probe those less-obvious corners. Running a global gamut, the five diverse new features sampled below offer vacations from realism that aren’t necessarily aimed at your inner 13-year-old, unlike most of what’s at the multiplex.
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
Always curious what people are reading, a few years ago I asked a young woman what her book was as we both waited outside an animal shelter. It was something by Haruki Murakami, and I said “Oh… I know a lot of folks love him, but I’ve kind of given up. He’s a little too twee for me.” She looked at me like I’d just drowned a kitten. Ah well, my opinion didn’t come about for lack of trying, whether it’s the guy’s novels or occasional film adaptations like Drive My Car, which everybody else loved. Sometimes you just have to admit an author’s particular sensibility has no overlap with your own.
Ergo it was a surprise to thoroughly enjoy this animated feature, which weaves together several Murakami short stories in a France-Luxembourg-Netherlands-Canada co-production that’s the first feature directed by composer Pierre Foldes. His father Peter was a famous, painterly Hungarian cartoonist who eventually became a pioneering figure in computer animation. But this film has a very hand-made look that’s occasionally beautiful but mostly just relatably scruffy, even as it depicts surreal disturbances, or flows in and out of dreams.
The main characters here are two Tokyo salarymen informed their bank jobs are about to be outsourced—to their dismay, as neither has any Plan B. The younger one, already disturbed by his wife’s emotional (then physical) absence, decides to take a fateful brief vacation. His senior colleague, a timid soul chafing under pressure, has yet more cause for alarm when a man-sized frog visible only to him suddenly materializes in his apartment. Taking place just after the 2011 earthquake, the pleasantly meandering narrative encompasses a lost cat, a wish-granter, a giant worm, and much more, as well as design in which everyday life seems constantly haunted/accompanied by ghostly parallel planes of existence. The mixed defeatism, gentle absurdist humor, and discreet sentimentality of Murakami’s work proves ideally translatable to this particular screen medium, in which its winsome charm never cloys. Blind Willow opens at the Roxie on Fri/28.
There is nothing gentle about the humor or anything else in this latest from Finnish director Jalmari Helander, whose 2010 debut Rare Exports won a cult following, though his equally outlandish Big Game four years later failed to find an audience. The man has a natural flair for over-the-top action, however, and the blackly comedic zeal to make it fly within outrageous story conceits. Here, the idea is so basic it hardly requires any dialogue: Angry old coot (Jorma Tommila) runs afoul of nasty Nazi troops as they beat their retreat from remotest Lapland in 1944, looting and laying waste to everything in their path. They barely think to trouble themselves with his like, until they realize he’s actually carrying some gold nuggets he’s prospected. They think relieving him of that burden will be easy pickings. Ohhhhh man: They picked the wrong geezer to screw with.
This is a fantasy of revenge against the Third Reich not so far from Inglourious Basterds, though reduced to a highly physical narrative gist that’s about as elemental—and at least as violent—as a Road Runner cartoon. Some directors do “bullet ballets;” Helander lends every little gore-geyser the same hysterically deadpan delicacy Buster Keaton did his pratfalls. This movie may be in very “bad taste,” but it is very funny, sometimes breathtakingly well-crafted, and in its way more emotionally satisfying than many a deeper meditation on man’s inhumanity to man will be this year. Sisu opens at theaters nationwide Fri/28.
Running Away With the Circus: “Broadway,” “Freaks vs. the Reich”
You’d think circus and carnival milieus would be kinda old-hat as emblems for rebellious outsiderdom, but two new movies take that notion quite seriously beneath their phantasmagorical surfaces. Christos Massalas’ Broadway, which opened the SF Greek Film Festival last week, is no Greatest Show On Earth—it opens with a line about something “so hard, it’s ripping my pants,” and introduces its gas-huffing heroine mid-pole dance. She is Nelly (Elsa Lekalou), a fugitive from a corrupt, controlling wealthy family who hopes they won’t find her in the Athens dive where she’s performing for oglers’ tips.
However, they do, and her escape from their goons is helped by patron Markos (Stathis Apostolou). He hides her in an abandoned theater where he’s the ringleader for a group of eccentric misfits who multitask as street buskers/pickpockets. Nelly is willing enough to fall into his bed, as well as perform in his “troupe.” But when he’s caught red-handed and must do a prison stint, she develops a deeper attachment to the tall, androgynous Jonas (Foivos Papadopoulos). She gives him a glam makeover as “Barbara,” the two performing public-square pas de deux to Dead or Alive and the “Flashdance” theme.
This effortfully outre puree of Jeunet, La Strada, Almodovar, Moulin Rouge, Children of Paradise and so forth tosses in everything from a phone-tree network of avenging transwomen to a comedy-reilef monkey. For me, it never quite lifted off, all supposedly grand passions kept theoretical by thin character writing and Lekalou’s sullenly one-note performance. But if you’re pining for some sexy Euro-whimsy with a dash of Burning Man, be my guest. Broadway isn’t opening this Fri/28 any closer than Rohnert Park, but will be available on DVD and Digital platforms as of May 16.
Tipping hat to some of those same inspirations, but more heavily influenced by the ouevre of Guillermo del Toro, is Gabriele Mainetti’s Freaks vs. the Reich. The actor-turned-director’s prior They Call Me Jeeg was billed as Italy’s first superhero movie, and this equally big, slick, splashy enterprise is sort of Avengers meets a mashup of del Toro’s Nightmare Alley and Pan’s Labyrinth—with a little Inglourious Basterds (again) thrown in. When their not-so-big top is destroyed during a WW2 air raid, the Half Penny Circus’ ragged performers hit the road in search of new gigs. Perhaps they might even find berth in the huge, popular, swastika-flying Zirkus Berlin, whose star attraction Franz (Frank Rogowski) plays Liberace-style covers of Radiohead and Guns ’n’ Roses songs at the grand piano.
These “freaks” don’t realize that mad Franz is in fact looking for them—he can see the future, and for the Third Reich, it isn’t pretty. But he also sees that if he can locate and harness the paranormal powers of four lowly circus performers, Germany may triumph yet. Wouldn’t you know it, our protagonists exactly fit that description: Mathilde (Aurora Giovinazzo) is electrically charged, werewolf-looking Fulvio (Claudio Santamaria) enormously strong, Mario (Giancarlo Martini) magnetizes metals, and Cencio (Pietro Castellito) can control the insect world. When their Jewish ringmaster Israel (Giorgio Tirabassi) is put on a concentration camp-bound train, they try to rescue him, but soon will need rescuing themselves from Franz’s diabolical clutches.
Full of deliberate anachronisms, digital FX, seriocomic grotesquerie and a big John Williams-like score, this elaborate comic book-ish spectacle may befuddle some viewers with its mix of juvenile and not-especially-family-friendly elements (including full frontal nudity). It’s not exactly my cup of tea—I’m not a huge del Toro fan, either—but certainly busy and colorful enough to make 141 minutes sail by pretty quickly. And for mainstream action-fantasy fans unafraid of subtitles, it may well be the (non-Marvel/DC) movie of the year. It is bypassing Bay Area theaters, but releasing to On Demand and Digital platforms Fri/28.
If all the above are just too complicatedly genre-blurring for your taste buds, there’s a reassuring straightforwardness to Thomas Marchese’s Mississippi-shot horror thriller, even if its non-chronological narrative structure requires some piecing together. The gist is this: When she was a junkie, Cora (Anna Camp) was so out-of-it, the police had to inform her that her five-year-old son was missing—she hadn’t even noticed.
Suitably repentant, she’s cleaned up her act somewhat several years later, during which span the child was never found. But then the leader of the grief support group she attends (John Ales as Abel) tells her there’s a way to “fix it”…to get back the offspring most have assumed is dead now. This involves a lengthy process of occult rites, and summoning a demon that—unsurprisingly—turns out to be a very bad customer to get tangled with.
Very little happens here until nearly the one-hour mark, although thanks to the script’s flashback-laden progress, we know from the start that things will get bloody. In truth, From Black isn’t terribly frightening, or its rather conventional monster all that interesting. Yet director-cowriter Marchese treats his story with a non-hyperbolic, stylistically economical, psychologically realist sobriety that is compelling in itself, with strong performances (also by Jennifer Lafleur as Cora’s exasperated cop sister) to match. This isn’t a great movie. Still, with so many derivative, cheesy new horror flicks arriving every week, its thoughtful seriousness of purpose stands out. From Black begins streaming on genre platform Shudder this Fri/28.