... featuring 26 of my favorite heroines, from Modesty Blaise, through Barbarella, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Bloody Mallory, Ultraviolet and all the way to Lucy, pulled out from the mud of bad criticism. :)
Suffering of Ninko marks a unique feature-length debut for Norihiro Niwatsukino who plunges the viewers into the world of Edo-era Japan they've likely never seen before, making them the witnesses of a weird, surreal clash between celibacy (read: repressed sexuality) and libidinous desires (posing as a dark side of sorts).
Opening with 'long time ago', the film introduces us to Ninko (Masato Tsujioka) - a devout and diligent Buddhist neophyte of Enmei-ji temple. When he's not brooming the staircase or visualizing religious imagery out of round-cut root vegetables, he practices meditation, like every good monk would do.
However, he has a huge problem, because there's this aura about him that transforms all the ladies into nymphomaniac groupies (during the alms begging) and lures a couple of his brethren out of the closet. After a particularly worrisome encounter with a mysterious woman behind a Noh mask, he decides to go on a journey of purification which will get him more than (or exactly what?) he bargained for...
And so, a fairy tale takes a comedic turn, borrows a road-movie trope or two, flirts with folklore-inspired horror and ends on an ecstatic note, all the while defying genre classification and seething with cult status potential. Niwatsukino is not afraid to risk and the best proof of his gutsy direction is a splendid sequence of Ninko's lucid hallucination or rather, achievement of lustful Nirvana, accompanied by the exquisite J-traditional remix of Ravel's Boléro.
In a matter of minutes, he ably blends softcore erotica with a sensual dance performance, bringing ancient manuscripts to life through the short animated vignettes, both naughty and beautiful. These 'anime' bits serve as a 'glue' for live-action scenes, plugs for the holes in the shoestring budget, as well as a concise insight into the history of J-art, from Buddhist mandalas to ukyo-e, involving a good deal of shunga. Not to mention they reflect the unrestrained creativity of their author who is credited as producer, director, writer, editor, animator and VFX supervisor, so one has to respect his ambition, at least.
With two DPs by his side, Niwatsukino delivers plenty of aesthetically pleasing shots, notwithstanding the limitations of a digital camera. His tongue-in-cheek attitude never stands in the way of the decisions he makes, rendering Suffering of Ninko simultaneously Zen and profane, a guilty pleasure and a great example of experimental cinema.
Anna Biller's naughty, independently produced debut looks and sounds exactly like the early 70s sexploitation flick which she skillfully mocks, satirizes and pays a loving homage to, all at once. Starring herself as Barbi without 'e' - a bored housewife who presumes the identity of the titular libertine - Viva is amusing and refreshing in equal measures.
After her husband Rick (Chad England) goes on a month-long business trip, Biller's "Belle de Jour" starts discovering the joys and ploys of the sexual revolution - prostitution, drug abuse, nudist colonies, horny hippies, bisexuality, orgies and the most pretentious of artists. The quirky characters she comes in contact with frequently act as if they wandered off the set for a commercial or erotic magazine shoot, adding to the silly comic effect. But, even though all of them are extremely caricatured, one can easily recognize real people, as well as biting social commentary behind their flamboyant appearance.
As in the last year's campy thriller The Love Witch, Biller is the multi-hyphenate in charge of directing, writing, editing, designing sets and costumes, even animating a short psychedelic sequence - all with an assured hand. Drenching everything from walls, through mini dresses and all the way to velvet cushions in saturated colors and trip-inducing patterns, she creates an uninterrupted string of visually stunning shots which make for an unforgettable cinematic experience.
Also praiseworthy are the cast's deliberately stilted, softcore-porn-level performances which add a lot to Viva's overwhelming kitschy charm.
Granny's Dancing on the Table (Hanna Sköld, 2015)
In her sophomore, ironically titled feature, the Swedish director Hanna Sköld tackles one of the most sensitive topics - child abuse. Drawing inspiration from her own unpleasant experience, she pulls no punches and establishes an atmosphere so depressing that some of Bergman's gloomiest works seem hopeful in comparison.
A bitter, ice-cold story revolves around a pubescent girl, Eini (the pale Blanca Engström, carrying the movie on her slight shoulders), who lives with a despotic father (an intense performance by Lennart Jähkel) on a small, remote farm, deep in the forest. The strolls amongst the trees and the tin-boxed correspondence between her granny and great aunt are her only relief from the drudgery of isolated day to day existence.
However, a fantasy world conceived out of Eini's "ennui" is not a happy place where she can escape grim reality. Quite the contrary - rendered in rudimentary, childlike stop-motion animation, it reveals a history of domestic violence and antisocial tendencies which brought forth her distressing childhood. To a certain degree, it does contrast the grays of a dysfunctional family (chamber) drama, but it is definitely not a sugar coating one might expect from a puppet-show.
Brutally honest, Sköld shows no mercy to the viewer, favoring the austere, Tarkovsky-meets-Nordic-dread imagery (kudos to the Polish DP Ita Zbroniec-Zajt) over sparse dialogue, music and narration. With bold, precise strokes she paints a harrowing portrait of a child forever scarred by parental misconduct and grants her heroine a future of uncertainty and many unresolved issues. And when the festive title finally comes to fruition, Eini's mental state is seriously impaired.
American Fable (Anne Hamilton, 2016)
Another coming-of-age tale takes us back to the 80s Midwestern farm, during the economic recession which many described as the worst ever since the Great Depression. Told from the perspective of its 11-year-old heroine Gertrude Marie Jaeger or, simply, Gitty (superbly played with wide-eyed innocence and insatiable curiosity by the vastly talented Peyton Kennedy), it blends poetic reveries and dark machinations into a stylish, yet flawed "fairy tale thriller".
We have caring parents (Kip Pardue as a father, Abe, and Marci Miller as a mother, Sarah), a brutish older brother, Martin (Gavin MacIntosh), a witch figure in Zuleikha Robinson's Vera and a wish-fulfilling genie in Richard Schiff's big-city businessman, Jonathan, all entangled in a shady save-the-estate scheme which might not end in happily ever after.
The first-timer Anne Hamilton shows great ambition in experimenting with symbolism and the narrative structure, leaving some loose ends here and there, between the inscrutable dreams and painfully obvious reality. Her "mishits" could be attributed to Gitty's naiveté and point of view blurred by bedtime stories and later, an ethical dilemma.
On the other hand, she and her cinematographer Wyatt Garfield deliver plenty of inspiring, aesthetically refined compositions that work both individually and in the context of the beautiful whole complemented by Gingger Shankar's befittingly haunting score. Even though her American Fable takes a cue or two from Andrew Wyeth's paintings (Christina's World), Guillermo del Toro's dark fantasies and her mentor Terrence Malick's meandering dramas, it comes off as a solid and quite original piece of rural Americana gothic.
XX (Jovanka Vučković, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin & Karyn Kusama, 2017)
The first all-female directed horror anthology doesn't disappoint, yet it doesn't revolutionize the genre either. In other words, it is a slightly above average mix of interesting concepts and fine execution - nothing more, nothing less. Three out of four women in command explore the ups and, particularly, downs of motherhood, whereby the last member of their quartet plays a different tune for the sake of variety.
Jovanka Vučković's The Box is a cool, metaphysical, Twilight Zone-like mystery focused on a family whose members take a fatal diet prior to Christmas and following a subway encounter with an enigmatic man carrying a "gift" wrapped in red. Its highlight is a nightmarish scene in which mater familias's suppressed worries and fears are metaphorized through a gruesome, darkly humorous feast.
Following is a campy extravaganza The Birthday Cake whose musician-turned-filmmaker Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) subverts a few horror clichés, from a creepy maid (who looks like The Duke of Burgundy extra) to noises from the wardrobe, into tense and somewhat illogical preparations for a birthday party. This effective, yet not-at-all-scary psycho-drama (for the lack of a better term) suggests that being an overprotective parent doesn't mean your child won't end in a shrink's office sooner or later.
Roxanne Benjamin is the "rebel" of the group, as her Don't Fall is not concerned with mother, but rather with the pre-Native American era petroglyphs which thwart the field trip for four friends. This throwback to the cheesy 80s creature feature conveys a simple message: "Don't believe in crap or you might morph into one!"
And the last, but not least vignette Her Only Living Son is authored by the most experienced of the involved helmers, Karyn Kusama, whose obsession with cults (remember The Invitation) is transformed into an easily readable love letter to Polanski's masterpiece Rosemary's Baby. Revealing more would lead us into the spoiler territory.
An honorable mention goes to Sofía Carrillo's (Prita Noire) surreal and creepy stop-motion fantasy which wonderfully serves as a "wraparound" sequence, with its moths, rotting apples and broken dolls.
With the actor Gabriele Mainetti's directorial debut, Italian cinema gets its own Toxic Avenger - minus deformation and trash "aesthetics". A winner of seven prestigious David di Donatello statues, They Call Me Jeeg Robot brings a gritty combo of social satire and superhero tropes.
Opening with a handsome bird's-eye view of Rome, accompanied by someone's heavy panting, it leads to a police chase through the narrow streets, past the anti-bombing protests and all the way to the Tiber riverbank. Cornered by the forces of order, a runaway is forced to dive into the water, where he accidentally breaks a barrel with hazardous waste. Covered in slimy, black substance, the wretch returns home, vomiting badly and feeling like crap.
It's only later we learn his name is Enzo Ceccoti (the sad-eyed Claudio Santamaria) - a friendless small time crook who feeds on porn and vanilla pudding, in a seedy suburban apartment. After getting involved in a drug trafficking case gone very awry, he ends up babysitting his dead partner's autistic adult daughter Alessia (a great first-time performance by Ilenia Pastorelli) who will trigger his moral metamorphosis and crush the emotional walls that surround him. The girl is an avid fan of Steel Jeeg anime series based on Go Nagai's manga, and convinced that Enzo is its protagonist Hiroshi Shiba, hence the movie's title.
Do not expect a flashy Marvel-style spectacle, as there are no cheesy costumes, neat gadgets or mind-blowing special effects here. What you get is a wild ride through Rome's ugly underbelly, almost naturalistically depicted and inhabited by sexually ambiguous mobsters, such as Fabio 'Zingaro' (lit. Gipsy) Cannizzaro portrayed by the scene-stealer Luca Marinelli. This fame hungry, Joker-level psychopath is a former reality show runner-up (ironically, the aforementioned Pastorelli comes from Big Brother background) jealous of Enzo's "supercriminal" status earned by the viral YouTube video of him ripping an ATM-machine.
Zingaro is a grim, whimsical, often disturbingly funny yin of the hero's stained, melancholy-driven yang, because every good "supercharged" story needs an archvillain. Both of these individuals are the "products" of modern times - the former is a celebrity-wannabe nutjob whose unpredictability is threatening, whereby the latter is an introvert boy trapped in a grown misanthrope's body who eventually succumbs to a fantasy conceived by his weird love interest. Their final showdown is, essentially, unadulterated hyper-evil VS. awakened, once deeply buried goodness trampled by the turbulent past.
But, the best thing about them and the whole goings-on is Mainetti's down-to-earth approach which doesn't require suspension of disbelief to be stretched too much, notwithstanding the quirky flourishes and the supernatural bits. The characters feel credible, even when they're hyperbolized (or bordering caricatures), making the drama (spiced with some black and deadpan humor) genuine and the violence impactful. Topping that is the score's unobtrusiveness or total absence which enhance the realism of flickering images (kudos to the cinematographer Michele D'Attanasio).
During a nearly two-hour running time, this feature rarely outstays its welcome, while its helmer deserves to be kept an eye on, for the skill demonstrated in juggling tonal shifts, as well as in breathing life and playfulness into stale genre.
In his sophomore, crowdfunded short film, Adan Jodorowsky proves the idiom that apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Brimming with bizarre and esoteric imagery, The Voice Thief is based on the eponymous short story written by the author's father - the master surrealist and spiritual guru Alejandro Jodorowsky.
This extravagant musical-fantasy-mystery stars Asia Argento as an opera singer, Naya, who loses her voice during the strangulation session with her husband Noev (Adan's brother Cristóbal). She threatens to commit suicide, so he is forced to embark on the nocturnal odyssey in order to recover her vocal cords, becoming the titular antihero in the process.
Following the opening scene in a crowded theater, with a quartet of seminude blonde critics sitting in a front row, is an outré adventure involving two transvestites (a midget countertenor whore and a chubby bass queen), scantily clad saint with a miraculous urine, an armed squad and a hanged ship. (Not to mention a vivid snake-birth hallucination during Naya's debut and a horned tantrum.)
Surreal, fetishistic, iconoclastic and rich with the craziest of details, The Voice Thief is a type of film rarely seen these days, like an unholy cross between Alejandro Jodorowsky's wildest and weirdest ideas, Dario Argento's most baroque horrors and Nicolas Winding Refn's stylish provocations. Its lavish colors and textures, the eccentric costumes and tastefully kitschy sets are wonderfully captured by the keen eye of DP Alexis Zabe (who collaborated with Reygadas on Stellet Licht and Post Tenebras Lux) in a long series of breathtaking visual compositions. The flamboyantly kaleidoscopic aesthetics are complemented by the French musician Rob's 80s-sounding score.
The moment you see Elaine sporting raven-black hair, blue eyeshadow and a red dress that matches her convertible (as well as the purse and a cigarette pack), you are bewitched by her ravishing beauty. But, that is only natural, considering she is the titular love-and-attention-hungry anti-heroine reborn as a witch, after her husband "left her" (read: died under very suspicious circumstances).
Proclaiming she wants to start afresh, only to continue in her old black widow ways, Elaine (magnetically portrayed by the playful Samantha Robinson) arrives in a small town "where no one knows her" and moves in a Victorian villa with violet facade and delightfully kitschy interiors decorated by Wiccan ornaments. In an over-lunch conversation with her new friend and, later, semi-rival Trish (Laura Waddell), she spouts about sex and men as if "she'd been brainwashed by the patriarchy" which is all a part of Anna Biller's cunning strategy.
Concealing a sharp feminist edge in and between the deliberately tacky lines of dialogue, the director (who holds full creative control, being writer, editor, producer, composer, costume and set designer as well) delivers a female fantasy which will have all men's eyes glued to the screen, thanks to Robinson's seductiveness. (Not to mention there are a few more attractive and occasionally naked ladies in supporting roles.) Lovingly paying homage to campy exploitation films of the 60s and early 70s, while simultaneously keeping in touch with our times through the ideas and a few modern day details, she (almost perfectly) amalgamates "romantic" melodrama with supernatural pin-up thriller all sprinkled with a good deal of tongue-in-cheek humor.
There are arguably fifteen minutes or so that could have been cut, but The Love Witch is so gorgeous in its pseudo-occult, brightly colored simplicity that you have to forgive Biller for wanting to keep as much material as possible. Her kaleidoscopic artwork (including a handmade pentagram rug, inter alia) is stylishly captured by DP M. David Mullen who shoots on a 35mm camera, making the stunning visuals even more effective. On top of that, the lighting, the effects, stilted acting, the protagonists' physiognomy and a few fittingly groovy tracks borrowed from Ennio Morricone scored soundtracks all complement the desired atmosphere. If you get a chance, feel the magic on the big screen.