Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (2023)

It hasn’t come up in a while, but I’m a big fan of author Haruki Murakami, having first read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle nearly twenty years ago and having devoured several other novels and short story collections in the years since; in fact, as I write this, I have a copy of his short story collection First Person Singular sitting next to my bed. As such, when I settled into the theater to see Master Gardener, I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was an upcoming screening of a new animated feature that would consolidate several of his short pieces into a single narrative. The common elements of the stories that make up the aforementioned Singular is that they are all from the point of view of an unnamed protagonist, none of whom are the same from piece to piece but all of whom are quintessentially Murakami. Not universally, but among them are people seeking missing cats, characters fascinated by wells, men who share Murakami’s interest in running, people who meticulously cook delicious-sounding meals from simple ingredients, lots of discussion about staying in shape by swimming at the local natatorium, detailed descriptions for the care and upkeep of vinyl records, and, above all, men who yearn. From the lowliest television fee collector’s son to the everyday salaryman to the reclusive artist, all of Murakami’s men yearn — for the lives that they might have lived, for the loves that they never had or that they had and lost, for meaning. I can’t say that it never would have occurred to me that any number of these men could have ever been the same man because, in a way, they were all always Murakami to me, even when they had names, various fractals of the man who has been the weaver of many of the images and ideas that have gotten stuck in the craw of my consciousness over the years. 

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is the great crossover between six different pieces of short fiction, familiar and unfamiliar, and was adapted, produced, directed, and scored by Pierre Földes, who has largely worked previously as a composer; I didn’t recognize his name, but his C.V. contains two melancholic films I recall from my teenage years: L.I.E. and 12 and Holding. The film establishes three major characters: Katagiri, a perpetually overworked and overlooked accountant who lives a lonely life as the result of his inability to bond with others; his colleague Komura, a younger man whose future with the company looks bleak and whose life is further rattled by the sudden departure of his wife Kyoko, who leaves him a note comparing life with him to living with a “chunk of air;” and Kyoko herself who, after several days of watching constant news coverage of the 2011 earthquake, packs her things and leaves. Although the film is divided into numbered chapters, the stories are not discrete but melded together, and done so inventively. Most notably, there is one story that was almost too familiar, an adaptation of the story “The Wind-up Bird and Tuesday’s Women,” which was initially published in 1986 in The New Yorker before appearing as the first story in the 1993 collection The Elephant Vanishes and which was later reworked into the first chapter of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which was published in 1994 in Japan and 1997 in the U.S. Ironically, this actually comprises the final section of the film, placing what has always been treated as an introduction as a conclusion instead. 

Set in 2011 in the wake of that year’s devastating earthquake in Tokyo, most of the narrative follows Komura, with the film opening on his married life to Kyoko at a time just when their marriage is falling apart; for days, she has been unresponsive in front of the TV, watching news coverage of the attempts to save trapped citizens. When Komura is at work, she leaves him, writing a note asking him not to contact her, to look for her cat, and that she is never coming back. This sets up two plot elements: a trip that Komura takes to visit his younger teenage cousin to accompany him for a hospital visit, and a second trip that Komura is encouraged to take by his co-worker Sasaki. The former is the title story from the Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman collection and was originally about an unnamed man who accompanies his cousin to the doctor and takes the opportunity to relate how he would accompany his best friend to visit his girlfriend after an operation and is largely focused on time, daydreams, and recollections; here, this narrative is recast as the story of how Komura and Kyoko met, putting her in the place of the ill girlfriend who settled for Komura when her boyfriend died, at least in this version. The second of these is largely the plot of “UFO in Kushiro,” the first story in after the quake and the story from which Komura’s name is drawn. In it, Komura travels to Kushiro at the behest of his friend to deliver a small, nondescript package, and there he is drawn in by his colleague’s sister Keiko and her friend Shimao, who tries to draw Komura out of his funk. Alongside these two journeys is an adaptation of “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo,” in which Katagiri (who, it should go without saying, had no connection to Komura in any of the source materials) is visited by a man-sized frog who requests the timid man’s moral support in Frog’s upcoming battle with Worm, the creature who caused the recent earthquake (in the story the January 1995 earthquake) and whose ongoing efforts threaten to fully reduce the city to rubble. Elsewhere, Kyoko relates the story of a strange offer she received on the night of her twentieth birthday, in a story (“Birthday Girl”) also taken from the Blind Willow collection. 

The animation here is unsettling, even when it’s not intended to be. Director Földes apparently filmed the whole thing as a live action “reference” and then covered the heads of the actors with 3D models, which were then traced and animated. Other people who exist in the background or in the space through which our main characters move are thus translucent against the solid background. It’s an image that calls to mind the way that children draw things: a table first, and then the objects on it, so that the table and the wallpaper shine through the phone and the lamp drawn over them, but here it’s not the mark of a child’s process of learning about object permanence and layering images but is instead an evocation of the ephemerality. Whether or not Katagiri’s interactions with Frog are real is left to the interpretation of the reader (or viewer, as is the case here), but this is a world that is haunted, where the people who are not interacted with are ghosts and wisps. I hesitate to call it ugly (although it is, at times) and instead will simply call it unique. That method, combined with the easy pace at which the film progresses, makes the whole thing seem dreamlike. I’m sure that there will be others for whom this feels like a slog, but the film picks up the pace as it progresses, and every part of it feels as if it’s crafted with care, even if the aesthetic is intentionally haphazard. Ironically, however, I think the people least likely to enjoy this may be Murakami fans. Not that the author’s readers are a toxic fandom who will hate this melting together of different stories, but because transforming these from prose to film necessitates the loss of much of the narration that creates the rhetorical space in which his literary mannerisms flourish. His dialogue is still here, however, as is his sense of what makes people “tick,” and I still think it’s well worth visiting for fans and novices alike.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Suzume (2023)

It’s generally hackneyed for Western critics to compare any (or, in some egregious cases, all) modern anime directors to the legacy of Hayao Miyazaki, but it’s especially hackneyed to invoke that name when praising Makoto Shinkai, who’s been slapped with the ill-fitting label “The Next Miyazaki” at least since he made 5 Centimeters per Second two decades ago.  I am a little guilty of this hack behavior myself, having compared the way Shinkai lovingly illustrates the beauty of urban settings with the way Miyazaki illustrates the majesty of Nature – twice, when reviewing both his breakout hit Your Name. and its lesser loved follow-up Weathering with You.  And even though his latest film, Suzume, is partially set in the Japanese city of Miyazaki and features a direct shout-out to the Miyazaki-penned Whisper of the Heart, I really need to break the habit of typing that name every time a new Shinkai picture rolls through American cinemas.  We all do.

At this point, Shinkai’s closest comparison point might be someone who only occasionally dabbles in animation: Wes Anderson.  The 50-year-old industry long-timer has tripled down on his schtick so hard since Your Name. broke out in 2017 that his stubborn resistance to explore new visual or thematic territory has become endearingly stubborn in a distinctly Andersonian way.  I know exactly what I’m going to get from a Makoto Shinkai picture long before I buy a ticket and accompanying popcorn bucket: a supernatural romance between youngsters distanced by Japan’s urban/rural divide – their lives eventually united though fast-moving trains, widespread disaster, and the transformative power of love.  Shinkai’s non-existent lenses will “flair” across his CG-smoothed train rides and exquisitely detailed hand-drawn backdrops in the exact same way every single picture, and the only question, really, is what supernatural device he will use to keep his lovelorn teens apart.  He’s been so consistent in his recent output that he’s inspired his own crop of shameless imitators (as evidenced by other, lesser teen romances like Fireworks & I Want to Eat Your Pancreas) the same way that Wes Anderson’s retro, symmetrical wit inspired aggressively unwitty flicks like Garden State & Napoleon Dynamite.  The thing with both directors is that no matter how familiar & insular their respective filmmaking styles have become, they’re both still delivering vividly entertaining work every project.  I don’t know that Shinkai will ever match the soaring teen emotions of Your Name., but the artistry of his two triple-down follow-ups still coasts miles above most modern animation.  Like with Anderson, his work remains impressively gorgeous & earnest in the moment even if it’s no longer surprising or novel in the larger context of his career.

In this particular game of Makoto Shinkai Mad Libs, a rural teenager stumbles across a magical doorway guarded by a stone cat figurine that her touch brings to life.  When the impish cat-god scampers away, the unguarded door opens to unleash gigantic flaming tendrils from The Other Side that slam down on her unsuspecting hometown, threatening to destroy everything & everyone she knows in devastating earthquakes.  A college-age hunk she immediately crushes on teaches her how to close & lock this dangerous door, then joins forces with her to return the cat-god to its rightful station.  Only, the little feline prankster turns the hunk into a talking chair, which makes the heroic pair’s already awkward romance even more uneasy.  From there, Suzume and her wooden-chair beau chase the kitten around Japan, closing all the doorways to the afterlife that open without its protection along the way.  The wide-scale tragedy of the resulting earthquakes is treated seriously and is eventually tied to the 3/11 tsunami disaster that devastated Japan in 2011.  That historical context piles a lot of emotional heft onto the youngsters’ flirtatious relationship, but it’s also lightened by the physical awkwardness of their predicament.  In some ways turning the older boy into a talking chair makes him a less threatening object of desire for his teen-girl counterpart, but the movie still has cheeky fun in moments when he is visibly flustered that Suzume sits in his “lap.”  When she asks, vacantly, “Um, why are you a chair?” in perfect teenage aloofness, Shinkai is winking a signal that it’s okay to giggle at the outlandish premise.  Even so, the physical object the boy inhabits is eventually afforded its own emotional heft in Suzume’s backstory, so that his transformation is rooted in a tsukumogami Japanese folklore tradition instead of a LOL, So Random flippancy.  By the time Suzume crosses the gates of Hell to rescue her chair from the afterlife and defeat the flaming earthquake tendrils for good, there’s no question how seriously we’re supposed to take their relationship.

As easy as it is to become jaded about Shinkai’s tendency to repeat himself, there’s also no denying that he’s good at what he does.  By the film’s fiery emotional crescendo where Suzume is struggling to dislodge her new chair friend from his Arthurian stone prison while the world ends around them, it’s incredible how breezy the journey to get there felt in retrospect.  It’s as if you were so distracted by the frustrations of retrieving an escaped kitten that you didn’t even notice you opened the forbidden Hell door from Little Nemo’s Adventures in Slumberland during the frantic search (a formative film that I beg you not to scan its production credits, to spare me further self-inflicted accusations of hackiness).  Shinkai has a way of building to immense wonder & awe even if you start out assuming you’ve seen it all before, and I’m starting to hope he never changes course.  I want him to follow the Wes Anderson career path where every subsequent Makoto Shinkai movie will be the most Makoto Shinkaingest movie the world has ever seen.  May we all survive the disasters of climate change long enough to see his anime equivalent of The French Dispatch in 2032.

-Brandon Ledet

The Five Devils (2023)

One of the major reasons I love film festivals is that they transform otherwise low-profile, niche-interest oddities into the hottest tickets in town.  I always find it a little silly when festival crowds fight for a seat to see a wide-release studio film just a few weeks before it’ll play at every suburban multiplex anyway, but I’m charmed when that enthusiasm trickles down the program to smaller titles that will otherwise play to empty arthouse auditoriums before dying a slow death on streaming.  I was sharply aware of that phenomenon when lining up to see the weirdo fantasy drama The Five Devils at this year’s Overlook Film Fest the same day that it was premiering at The Broad Theater just a few blocks away from my house.  The Five Devils is the exact kind of low-budget, high-ambition art film that I’m used to watching alone at The Broad (or even at the same downtown location of The Prytania where most of Overlook is staged), so it was heartwarming to queue up with a swarm of like-minded, enthusiastic freaks psyched to be bewildered by it in unison.  It shouldn’t be surprising that a local genre festival could draw a sizable crowd to see a title that’s already screening outside its downtown shopping mall locale, considering the self-selection process of an audience already receptive to what Overlook offers.  Still, it was wonderful to see an odd, alienating little movie like The Five Devils get treated like a Cultural Event, when outside of festivals that kind of buzzy Thursday-night premiere is strictly reserved for superhero sequels & Tom Cruise suicide missions.

The last time I saw a French time-travel drama about a little girl who meets the younger, more troubled version of her mother through an unexplained, magical-realist device, it was in a near-empty auditorium.  Petite Maman is a much more accommodating, crowd-pleasing version of that story template too, underplaying the supernatural immensity of its time-travel premise to instead focus on subtle moments of dramatic grace.  In contrast, The Five Devils is Petite Maman for sickos, which is why it’s so heartwarming that Overlook was able to scrape together a full crowd of sickos to bask in its abrasive, brain-rattling glory.  Calling its time traveling anti-hero a “little girl” is a little reductive.  She’s more of an untrained, irresponsible witch, one who uses her supernatural sense of smell to jar up homemade potions that distill the unique essence of her few loved ones so she can mentally revisit them at will through sense memory.  This lonely pastime gets out of control when she gets a hold of an elixir that allows her to astral-project into those memories, effectively time-travelling to her mother’s youth.  What she discovers while traveling via these jarred scents is that she hails from a complex lineage of similarly obsessive, volatile women – most notably the younger, brasher version of her mother and her mother’s secret high school lover.  From there, The Five Devils unravels to reveal an intensely fucked-up little time-travel family drama, one punctuated by wild jabs of style & emotion that you won’t find outside of buzzy festival line-ups, empty arthouse theaters and, eventually, public library DVD loans.

There are plenty of readymade reference points that might help define The Five Devils through comparison: the childhood time travel & poolside romance of Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman & Water Lilies; the ecstatic gymnastic seizures of Ana Rose Holmer’s The Fits; Divine’s supernatural sniffer in John Water’s Polyester; etc.  Its wide range of vaguely familiar elements are reconfigured into such a uniquely high-style, high-drama mode of modern queer filmmaking that it can’t be cleanly categorized into any one long-running genre, though, except maybe to say that it makes for an incredibly uncomfortable Christmas film.  Similarly, I can’t pinpoint exactly what’s being conjured by its provocative title, since there are no literal devils in its narrative (which would more firmly push it into the horror territory covered by most of Overlook’s programming).  Are the five “devils” the five senses?  It certainly made me squirm under the sense of touch as the hard sequins of a gymnastic uniform scraped against freshly burnt flesh in its barnburner finale, but most of the story is dominated by smell.  Are they the four family members that crowd the small French household where the little scent-witch dwells, plus the one spurned & injured lover her parents left behind when they hooked up as teenagers?  Maybe. But no one among them is evil or villainous, exactly.  They all just indulge in messy, passionate human behavior, sometimes heighted by their unexplained supernatural powers.  Ultimately, I don’t actually want an answer to the question.  It’s just indicative of the rhetorical games of provocation & illogic that the film plays with the audience, and it’s often shocking how complex & emotional the results of those games can be.

To find the passionate cult audience it deserves, The Five Devils needs to be chopped up into easily digestible, memeable morsels the way similar crowd alienators like Midsommar, Tár, and Annette have in the recent past.  There’s plenty to work with there, from the striking visuals of young newcomer Sally Dramé huffing her collection of self-labeled scents to the total emotional breakdown of indie darling Adèle Exarchopoulos drunkenly slurring “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on a karaoke stage.  Hell, even I’m guilty of reducing it to something cuter & simpler than it is with my little “Petite Maman for sickos” quip.  In truth, it’s a very thorny, elusive work that’s difficult to market in any effective way without spoiling & overexplaining each of its dramatic twists.  That’s why it’s so great that festivals like Overlook & Cannes (where The Five Devils premiered) are able to drum up actual, real-life enthusiasm for a film this abrasively weird.  I love that I regularly get to see this kind of genre-defiant anomaly at The Prytania & The Broad, but it’s often a much quieter, lonelier experience.

-Brandon Ledet

Podcast #169: Willow (1988) & Fairy Tales

Welcome to Episode #169 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss a grab bag of fantasy films & fairy tales, starting with the 1988 Warwick Davis star-maker Willow.

00:00 Welcome

02:25 Vengeance (2022)
09:20 Barbarian (2022)
12:50 Seconds (1966)
17:05 Ghost in the Shell (1995)

22:05 Willow (1988)
44:30 The Singing Ringing Tree (1957)
1:02:17 Gretel & Hansel (2020)
1:17:17 Belle (2022)

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022)

I’m not sure how George Miller’s new fantasy anthology fits into the modern world, but I’m also not sure that it’s trying to.  Three Thousand Years of Longing feels like a relic from the 1990s at the very latest, recalling a specific fantasy era ruled by the likes of Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Terry Gilliam, and likeminded Brits.  It conjures its magic through uncanny CGI that definitively pins it to the 2020s, but its story of a lonely white woman finding love with a Black djinn while shopping for knick-knacks in Istanbul feels out of step with modern politics, daring the audience to decry “Orientalism” or “magical negro” at every turn.  It’s worth keeping in mind that George Miller is an old man. He’s been working long enough to have contributed to this exact brand of matter-of-fact magic before it was vintage in both The Witches of Eastwick and Babe: Pig in the City.  It also helps that the story he tells here directly questions its place in modernity, ultimately deciding that it belongs in another time & realm.

Tilda Swinton stars as a professor of “narratology” who travels to Istanbul to perform an academic lecture on the power of storytelling.  While antique shopping in her off-time, she unwittingly unleashes a gigantic puff of smoke shaped like Idris Elba, who demands that she make three wishes so that he can be freed from his tiny, glass prison.  You would expect an anthology with that wraparound to include one cautionary-tale vignette per wish, but Three Thousand Years has many more stories to tell.  Because Swinton’s professor studies storytelling as an artform & cultural tradition, she’s very reluctant to make any of her three wishes, fully informed on the usual “monkey’s paw” irony of these scenarios.  Elba’s djinn recounts magical stories from his thousands of years in captivity to convince her that he is not a trickster set out to teach her morality lessons about selfishness or greed.  In hearing his lived-experience fairy tales, she realizes that the true reason she cannot make a wish is because she does not have a true “heart’s desire,” at least nothing that can compare to the passionate yearnings suffered by her new, eternally lovesick companion.

Three Thousand Years of Longing is at once George Miller’s Tale of Tales, Guillermo del Toro’s The Fall and, least convincingly, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Good Luck to You Leo Grande.  The vivid colors & eerie moods of the fantasy flashbacks are unimpeachable, even if their politics are questionable.  All that’s left to puzzle over, really, is the effectiveness of the wraparound, which is mostly an excuse for two talented actors to take turns narrating short stories in an illustrated audio book.  As a two-hander character study, Three Thousand Years is cute but frothy.  The djinn struggles to adapt to the electromagnetic cacophony of modern living, where magic and science clash in a constant, furious roar.  His new storytelling companion struggles with breaking out of her shell, with making herself vulnerable to desire, and with the ethics of conjuring magical powers in the realm of love.  There isn’t much room for that dynamic to deepen, though, since Miller understandably spends more time on the romance & fantasy of centuries past.  Maybe the power of storytelling isn’t so timeless after all; maybe our hearts & minds are too cluttered to fully incorporate the magic of the old world into the electronic buzzing of the new one.  Still, it’s a nice feeling to visit from time to time, a wonderful momentary escape.

-Brandon Ledet

Podcast #163: Donkey Skin (1970)

Welcome to Episode #163 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, Britnee, and Hanna discuss Jacques Demy’s anti-incest fairy tale musical Donkey Skin (1970).

00:00 Welcome

03:07 Exotica (1994)
08:50 Sling Blade (1996)
16:00 Demon Seed (1977)

21:50 Donkey Skin (1970)

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

The King’s Daughter (2022)

I fully understand the mockery that met the mermaid fantasy movie The King’s Daughter when it was dumped into theaters this January.  Filmed at Versailles in 2014, the cursed production has been collecting dust for seven long, bizarre years, mostly waiting for the funding needed to complete its CGI.  The King’s Daughter was supposed to be released as The Moon and Sun in the spring of 2015.  Obama was president then.  Its star, Kaya Scodelario, was a hot commodity, fresh off the set of the hit TV show Skins.  Its bargain bin CGI would’ve been laughable even seven years ago, but getting displaced outside its time only makes it feel goofier than it already is.  It’s a movie made of leftover scraps, loosely stitched together with Bridgerton-style “Once upon a time” narration from Julie Andrews, turning over each scene like the brittle pages of a crumbling book.  The King’s Daughter is the exact kind of barely presentable debacle that cordially invites internet mockery; it’s more punching bag than movie.

And yet, picking on it feels unnecessarily cruel.  This is a cute, harmless (and, despite itself, gay) wish-fulfillment fantasy for little girls.  Its target audience is so young & uncynical that it mostly gets away with being outdated & uncool.  Adults might snicker at every “Meanwhile …” interjection from Andrews that clumsily lunges us towards the next disconnected scene, but young children are only going to see an aspirational tale of a rebel artist who makes friends with a magical mermaid despite her mean father’s wishes.  Pierce Brosnan stars as a highly fictionalized King Louis XIV, who commissions the capture of two very special creatures: his illegitimate, impoverished daughter (Scodelario) & a mermaid citizen of Atlantis (Fan Bingbing).  The daughter has a total blast at Versailles, celebrated by her estranged father for her musical talents & her Individuality.  The mermaid has less fun as the king’s prisoner—held captive as a potential fountain of youth—but forms a semi-romantic friendship with his daughter that almost makes her own constant suffering worthwhile; it’s a pretty thankless role.  The whole movie is in service of making the daughter’s new life seem magical & great, so little girls in the audience can live their mermaid-friend fantasies through her.

There are obviously much better mermaid movies out there, from the kid-friendly romanticism of The Little Mermaid to the disco-beat eroticism of The Lure.  Considering the wealth of better-funded, better-publicized titles between those two extremes, The King’s Daughter is harmless & anonymous enough to deserve a pass.  If there’s any reason for an adult audience to seek this film out, it’s to see Pierce Brosnan’s over-the-top, flouncy-wigged performance as King Louis XIV, but I can’t claim that he’s enough of a hoot to be worth the 90-minute mediocrity that contains him.  Otherwise, the only real draw for this film is if you’re a wide-eyed child with a long-running mermaid fixation, in which case no shoddy CGI or online dunking was ever going to stop you from seeing this anyway.  The only real shame of the picture is that it chickens out of making that mermaid-kids’ fantasy explicitly gay, choosing instead to romantically pair Scodelario with a Fabio-style hunk to de-emphasize her obvious attraction to the mermaid.  It’s not the romance novel swashbuckler whose heart-song calls out to Scodelario in the middle of the night, though, and even the youngest, naivest children in the audience will see right through that ploy.

-Brandon Ledet

Strawberry Mansion (2022)

I grew up in a time when Michel Gondry was a golden god to artsy teens everywhere and not a kitschy fad everyone’s embarrassed to admit they were super into.  Gondry’s proto-Etsy music videos for classics like “Everlong,” “Bachelorette,” and “Fell in Love with a Girl” might still hold nostalgic value, but there isn’t much of a vocal reverence for him as an established auteur these days.  No one’s going around sharing screengrabs from Mood Indigo or The Science of Sleep with copypasta tags like “We used to be a country, a proper country.”  I’ve always been on the hook for Michel Gondry’s distinct brand of twee surrealism, though, to the point where I still get excited when I see it echoed in films from younger upstarts who were obviously inspired by his work, like in Sorry to Bother You or Girl Asleep. Maybe I should be rolling my eyes at his visual preciousness now that I’m a thirtysomething cynic with a desk job instead of a teenage poetry student, but I’m happy to swoon instead.

So, of course I was won over by a twee fantasy epic about dream-hopping lovers dodging pop-up ads in a hand-crafted, near-future dystopia.  Strawberry Mansion continues the Michel Gondry tradition of playing with analog arts-and-crafts techniques to create fantastic dream worlds on a scrappy budget.  If you still get a warm, fuzzy feeling from stop-motion, puppetry, tape warp, and low-tech green screen surrealism, there’s a good chance you’ll be charmed by Strawberry Mansion too, regardless of whether Michel Gondry’s heyday happened to overlap with your internment in high school.  I have no evidence that directors Kentucker Audley & Albert Birney were consciously channeling Gondry here, but they demonstrate a similar knack for illustrating fantastic breaks from reality with the rudimentary tools of a kindergarten classroom.  Strawberry Mansion is likely too cute & too whimsical to win over all irony-poisoned adults in the audience, but if you can see it through the poetry & emotional overdrive of teenage eyes, it’s a stunning achievement in small-scale, tactile filmmaking.

In the year 2035, a humorless IRS bureaucrat is tasked with auditing the recorded dreams of an elderly artist who mostly lives off-the-grid.  He’s supposed to create a running tally of various props & cameos that appear in her dreams, each of which can be taxed for pennies.  However, he’s quickly distracted by how much freer & more imaginative her dreams are than his, which tend to be fried chicken & soda commercials contained to a single room (painted entirely pink like the sets in What a Way to Go!). It’s not surprising that his limited, commodified dreams are part of a larger conspiracy involving evil ad agencies and governmental control.  What is surprising is the romance that develops between the young tax man & the elderly artist.  They flee persecution for discovering the ad agency’s subliminal broadcasts by retreating further into the VHS fantasy worlds of the artist’s recorded dreams, forming a delightfully sweet bond in the most ludicrous of circumstances: demonic slumber parties, swashbuckling pirate adventures, cemetery picnics, etc.  The imagery is constantly delightful & surprising, even though you know exactly where the story is going at all times.

At its most potent, cinema is the closest we get to sharing a dream, so I’m an easy sucker for movies that are about that exact phenomenon: Paprika, The Cell, Inception, etc.  I’m also always onboard for a psychedelic Dan Deacon score, which adds a needed layer of atmospheric tension here.  Even so, Strawberry Mansion joins the rare company of films like Girl Asleep, The Science of Sleep, and The Wizard Oz that feel like totally immersive dreamworlds built entirely by hand.  They evoke the childlike imagination of transforming a cardboard refrigerator box into a backyard rocket ship, except that every single scene requires a new arts & crafts innovation on that level – more than history’s most creative child could possibly cram into a single adolescence.  No matter how sinister this film tries to make its corporate-sponsored dystopian future (or how grim Gondry tries to make his own doomed relationship dramas), nostalgia for that lost childhood whimsy cuts through.  The closest we can ever get back to it—without the aid of movies or drugs—is in lucid dreams.

-Brandon Ledet

The Spine of Night (2021)

There’s a character design in The Spine of Night that I swear was animated to look exactly like Sean Connery in Zardoz.  That should be a strong indicator of the genre-nerd waters this film treads, whether or not the reference was intentional.  A rotoscoped throwback to retro D&D fantasy epics like Wizards, Gandahar, and Heavy Metal, The Spine of Night is a for-its-own-sake aesthetic indulgence on the artistic level of a metal head doodling in the margins of their high school notebook.  If you’re not the kind of audience who thinks giant tits & giant swords make a badass pairing—especially when airbrushed on the side of a van—the movie will not offer much to win you over.  Its story is consistently thin & disposable, but it’s just as consistently good for flashes of metal-as-fuck imagery from scene to scene (“swamp magic,” beheadings, galloping horse skeletons, etc.).

The Spine of Night‘s voice cast is packed with always-welcome celebrity contributors: Patton Oswalt, Richard E. Grant, Joe Manganiello, Larry Fessenden, Betty Gabriel, etc.  I can only claim to have recognized a few of those voices without an IMDb cheat sheet, but the only contribution that really matters is the novelty of hearing Lucy Lawless voice a warrior princess in the 2020s.  She’s a perpetually naked swamp witch, the spiritual leader of her people, and a fearless warrior who unites oppressed communities from many disparate lands & eras to stop a power-hungry sorcerer from using magic for his own selfish, world-conquering ends.  At least, that’s the gist of what I picked up between all the beheadings & disembowelings that the movie’s actually interested in illustrating, with only the vaguest whisper of a plot reverberating onscreen amidst the gory mayhem.

I’m not entirely convinced by the visual majesty of the rotoscope animation showcased here, which I feel like is the entire point of the production.  The crisp, flat line work makes the characters less visually interesting than the detailed backdrops they disrupt (Zardoz references notwithstanding), which feels like a major problem.  There’s something clunky & leaden about the way they move too, as if the original footage they were traced over was accidentally slowed down a touch in the editing process.  Still, I’m enough of a sucker for heavy metal badassery to give the film a pass for what it is: bong rip background fodder.  There are plenty of “adult” animation curios from the 70s & 80s that enjoy ongoing cult-classic status for serving that same superficial function, so why not throw one more on the fire? The Spine of Night is not even the best nostalgic throwback to that era of fantasy animation from last year, though; that niche honor belongs to Cryptozoo.  It’ll have to settle for just being the more gleefully violent of the pair.

-Brandon Ledet

Cryptozoo (2021)

I struggle with parsing out how sincerely to take Dash Shaw’s movies.  Both his debut feature, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, and its follow-up, Cryptozoo, present a bizarre clash of far-out psychedelia in their animation & laidback aloofness in their storytelling.  His hand drawn 2D characters casually stroll through apocalyptic crises rendered in expressive, kaleidoscopic multimedia meltdowns.  Meanwhile, their personalities are decidedly inexpressive, mumbling about their often-inane internal conflicts in apparent obliviousness to the chaos around them.  Cryptozoo at least pushes that internal fretting into bigger questions about the ethical & political conflicts of its psychedelic fantasy world.  It’s just difficult to determine how much those conflicts are intended to be taken seriously vs how much are an ironic joke about the film’s own sprawling, convoluted mythology.  Shaw’s films are never boring to look at, though, even if his characters appear to be bored within them.  His visual playfulness is a quality that’s increasingly difficult to find in modern animation, questions of sincerity be damned.

As the title alludes, Cryptozoo is an animated fantasy film about a futuristic zoo for cryptids: dragons, unicorns, sasquatches, gorgons, etc.  The battlefield for its central conflict is a world where cryptids are suddenly plentiful but violently distrusted by the general human public – X-Men style.  The warring factions in discerning how humans should relate to these mythical creatures are “conservationists” who want to centrally locate the cyptids in a Disney World-like “zoo” and militarists who want to deploy them as biological weapons.  It’s a distinctly capitalist paradigm, where every single resource—including living creatures—must serve one of two purposes: money or military.  The warmongers are obviously the “bad guys” in that debate, but the supposed “sanctuary” alternative of the cryptozoo must earn enough money to stay afloat, which leads to the cryptids’ captivity & exploitation in an amusement park setting by the supposed “good guys”.  This convoluted mythology is debated in solemn, conversational tones while extravagant, badass illustrations of the cryptids themselves roar in the background.  How seriously you’re supposed to take those debates and how meaningful their themes are outside the confines of the film are a matter of personal interpretation, something I’ve yet to settle on myself.

Part of my struggle with how sincerely relate to Cryptozoo might be a result of viewing it through a modern-animation context, where I’m comparing it against other recent psychedelic oddities like The Wolf House, Violence Voyager, and Night is Short, Walk on Girl.  Despite its crudely layered multimedia approach to animation, the film is more likely spiritually aligned with fantasy films of the 1970s & 80s – titles like Heavy Metal, Wizards, and Gandahar.  In that era, animated fantasy epics were all intensely sincere allegories about pollution, prejudice, and ethnic genocide.  Cryptozoo‘s messaging is a little more resistant to 1:1 metaphor, but I’ll at least assume that its musings on the corrupting force of capitalism is politically sincere.  It’s a little hard to immediately latch onto that sincerity when your film opens with a nudist stoner voiced by Michael Cera being gored by a unicorn, but that doesn’t mean the entire resulting conflict is meant to be taken as a joke.  Realistically, the only reason I’m putting this much consideration into its dramatic sincerity at all is because the imaginative color-pencil drawings that illustrate its conflicts are objectively badass, making the rest of the film worth contending with instead of outright dismissing as stoner nonsense.  I’m buying what Dash Shaw is selling, though I’m still not sure why.

-Brandon Ledet