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Films I Neglected To Review: Hardly Silent But Deadly All The Same
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Belladonna of Sadness," "Carnage Park," "Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words," "Our Kind of Traitor" and "Swiss Army Man."

Produced in 1973 but never released in America until now, "Belladonna of Sadness" is an uber-trippy and decidedly adult animated film from Japan from cult filmmaker Ouch Yamamoto. As the story opens, the bliss of recently married peasants Jean and Jeanne is shattered when the latter is gang-raped by the cruel local baron and his henchmen enforcing that prima nocta stuff that we all remember from "Braveheart." Ostracized by both the town and her own husband, Jeanne winds up making a bargain with a phallic-shaped demon (one that grows in size as she touches it) that eventually allows her to supplant the baron as the town's ruler but, not surprisingly, the deal winds up having dire and unexpected consequences for both her and her husband.

From a dramatic standpoint, the film isn't much to speak of--the story is a little slow and repetitive at times, the ending is a bit too abrupt and the attempts use the accusations of witchcraft against Jeanne by people afraid of women demonstrating any degree of power with the then-flowering women's liberation movement do not quit pay off. On the other hand, the film's visual style, which consists largely of a series of slow pans over expressionistic-style paintings that occasionally come to life in unexpected ways, is undeniably eye-catching and offers up some of the most striking images that you will see on a movie screen this year, especially the scene in which Jeanne and the demon make love, so to speak, and another depicting the town being literally consumed by the plague. Add in the wild soundtrack put together by Masahiko Satoh and you have a mindbender of the first order that anyone with a taste for cinematic adventure (and without, I must stress, any kids in tow) should try to check out.

If "The Purge: Election Day" doesn't satisfy your taste for pointless cinematic sadism this weekend, perhaps the grindhouse homage "Carnage Park" will do the trick. Everyone else, however, is advised to stay far away from this brutally stupid (when it isn't just plain brutal) and pointless attempt by writer-director Mickey Keating to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Rob Zombie. Set in the early 1970s (and based on a true story, according to the breathless opening title card that is just one of the many ham-fisted references to "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" to be had here), the film opens with a badass criminal (James Landry Hebert), his grievously wounded partner (Michael Villar) and a hostage locked in the trunk (Ashley Bell) speeding away from a bank robbery gone violently wrong. Eventually, their car winds up on the property of Wyatt Moss (Pat Healey), a deranged Vietnam vet who has a tendency to grab anyone who happens upon his large stretch of remote land in the desert and hunt them down for sport.

You can pretty much fill in the blanks from that point - not that there is really that much left to fill in since from that point, it just becomes an unending stream of shootings, stabbings, impalings and other fun stuff. There is not a single original thought to be had here - even the initially disconcerting juggling of the timeline seems to be there only because it was what Tarantino did in "Reservoir Dogs" - and even the most ardent gorehounds are likely to quickly tire of the carnage on display here, unless they are trying to compete to see who can come up with the longest list of genre titles that this one is clearly borrowing stuff from throughout. "Carnage Park" is nasty, unpleasant and thoroughly unentertaining and perhaps the best thing that can be said about it is that it seems highly unlikely that the continuation hinted at in the final scene is likely to ever go before the cameras in this lifetime.

I have always been of two minds when it comes to the late Frank Zappa. On the one hand, I am in complete admiration of him both as a musical composer who ran the gamut from sardonic pop to avant-garde to classical and as a tireless champion for the cause of free speech. On the other hand, through reading and watching interviews with him over the years until his untimely passing from cancer in 1993, he oftentimes struck me as a bit of an asshole who could be just as intolerant of those who he did not feel to be on his particular intellectual or artistic wavelength as those who didn't get him and his work could be with him. Culled entirely from archival footage spanning his entire career, the documentary "Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words" is a film that leans heavily on the portrayal of him as an endlessly innovative artist who could make music from a bicycle (as seen in a bizarre clip from "The Steve Allen Show") and went on to create some of the strangest and most controversial tunes of the psychedelic era and beyond.

That is okay, I suppose, and if all you want from a film like this is a straightforward recounting of his career peppered with snatches of his music (much of which continues to sound ahead of its time even though it was made several decades earlier), Thorsten Schutte's film is definitely the way to go. However, I have the sneaky suspicion that, if given the choice, Zappa himself might have preferred a film that was something more ambitious and audacious than the hagiography presented here--something more akin to his infamous cult film "200 Motels" that might have given viewers more of an unapologetic warts-and-all depiction of his life and art. That said, if you are a Zappa fan, "Eat That Question" is pretty much essential. For everyone else, it is entertaining enough to warrant a look but those who are not already convinced of the man's genius will most likely not have their point-of-view changed by this film.

The works of celebrated espionage novelist John le Carre have inspired any number of top-notch films over the years--"The Spy Who Came In from the Cold," "The Russia House," "The Tailor of Panama," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," "The Constant Gardner" and the recent TV miniseries of "The Night Manager"--but alas, "Our Kind of Traitor" is not one of them. While on holiday in Marrakech with his girlfriend Gail (Naomie Harris), college professor Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor) makes the acquaintance of glad-handing Russian oligarch Dima (Stellan Skarsgard), who then makes a simple request of his new friend - would Perry be so good as to deliver a USB drive to British Intelligence for him when he and Gail return home? He does but as it turns out, Dima has been laundering money for the Russian mob for years and now that it is clear that the new top dog plans on murdering him and his family, he wants to make a deal with the British government in which he will turn over evidence of massive payoffs to key British officials in exchange for asylum for him and his family. Alas, the MI6 agent (Damian Lewis) who gets the case has no staff to speak of and no one he can turn to without ruffling too many feathers. However, he is so obsessed with getting his hands on the list that he enlists Perry and Gail to get back into contact with Dima and help out with the increasingly dangerous efforts to get him and his family to safety.

For anyone with a working knowledge of le Carre's works, which are spy stories in which internal memos are deployed far more frequently than the fancy gadgetry, this combination of dour bureaucrats, corruption in the highest corridors of power and innocent people who find themselves crushed between the two by forces they can barely understand, "Our Kind of Traitor" will no doubt seem familiar. The trouble here is that the material may seem a little too familiar this time around and director Susanna White's attempts to juice things up by making the action beats a little more stylish than usual are constantly at odds with le Carre's low-key narrative approach. The performances are all okay but none of the actors do anything here that they have not done before in more exciting surroundings and even they seem to be lost in the labyrinthine narrative at times. As le Carre adaptations go, this is certainly a step above the misfire that was "The Little Drummer Girl" and to see it in the wake of the recent Brexit movement does add a certain degree of intrigue that it might not of otherwise had. However, compared to the utterly engrossing films that I cited earlier, this one cannot help but come up short in the end.

"Swiss Army Man," presumably to be known forever more as "the film where Daniel Radcliffe plays a farting corpse," was one of the big hits of this year's Sundance Film Festival for reasons that not even the generally lack of oxygen can fully explain. In it, Paul Dano plays Hank, a despondent young man stuck on a deserted island who is about to kill himself when he spies a corpse (Radcliffe) that has washed up on the beach. As it turns out, the corpse, which Hank eventually names Manny, farts a lot - so much, in fact, that Hank is able stand on his back and ride him back to the mainland like a jet ski. Once they arrive, Hank needs to trek through an imposing forest in order to get back to civilization and is determined to bring Manny along as well. Manny, as it turns out, proves to be surprisingly resourceful for a stiff - even going so far as to supply fresh water (don't ask) and conversation - and he and Hank become the best of friends as they try to make it back to the real world while eventually confronting the events of the past that helped lead them to where they are now.

To give writer-director team Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert a modicum of credit, the opening scenes are intriguing and I also liked their refusal to offer up some wild explanation for Manny's current existence - any attempt to make logical sense of his character would be utter foolishness - but beyond those aspects, there is virtually nothing to see here that even begins to justify the raves that this got at Sundance. The film tries to go for the same kind of audacious whimsy that Michel Gondry has based his entire career upon. The difference is that when Gondry has succeeded in the past, as with "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" or the recent "Mood Indigo," it has been because said whimsy was supported by a strong and interesting storyline from which the weird stuff emerged naturally. This film, on the other hand, is nothing more than 90 minutes of cloying cutesiness that comes dangerously close to suggesting what might have resulted if Zach Braff were given the job of doing a remake of "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia." The endless fart jokes are not funny, the eom-heavy moments of reflection are often laughable, the whimsical moments in which the two get all artsy-crafty while the woods are unbearable, the performances from the two leads are more grating than ingratiating and, to top things off, the film commits the cardinal sin of bringing in the wonderful Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the closing scenes and then gives her virtually nothing of interest to do.

I suppose the Daniels, as they are billed in the credits, deserve some kind of recognition for somehow getting such a loopy idea financed, produced and released at a time when even indie distributors are wary of handling anything that strays too far off the reservation. Now if they could only channel those energies into a film that doesn't want to inspire you to slap everyone involved with its production, distribution and exhibition for inflicting such puerile piddle, they might really have something someday. "Swiss Army Man" may be a lot of things - most of them unprintable - but it is most certainly not a gas.

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originally posted: 07/01/16 12:09:16
last updated: 07/02/16 03:18:11
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