Updated: Oct 12, 2021
This weekend, I decided to get into the spirit of the Halloween season by buying a five-movie access pass for Nightstream, a (supposedly) horror-themed online film festival founded during the more chaotic days of the Covid-19 pandemic. And although none of my selections were quite as… traditional as I’d hoped, they certainly sated my appetite for unique cinematic experiences.
Alien on Stage: In this documentary from first-time directors Danielle Kummer and Lucy Haley, a troupe of Dorset bus drivers turned actors take their stage adaptation of Ridley Scott’s Alien from their sleepy community theatre all the way to London’s West End (with more than a little help from an enormously successful Kickstarter campaign). While the amateur thespians’ plain, weathered looks and quaint, small-town mannerisms (even Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg couldn’t have invented fictional characters this endearingly quirky) threaten to make them easy targets for mean-spirited mockery, their infectious enthusiasm and obvious passion (particularly when it comes to the charmingly low-budget, do-it-yourself special effects) transform them into quintessential underdog heroes. Their gradual evolution from ordinary blue-collar workers into unlikely internet celebrities perfectly encapsulates the tribulations and triumphs of the creative process—the overinflated egos, the pre-show anxiety, and the transcendent joy of finally performing in front of a live audience.
Mad God: Developed by VFX wizard Phil Tippett (best known for his contributions to Jurassic Park and the Star Wars franchise) over a period of thirty-four years—and good Lord, is that effort ever evident in every single frame!—this mixed-media (stop-motion animation, live-action, miniatures, puppetry, and occasional CGI) masterpiece is borderline indescribable. Imagine if Dante Alighieri, Ray Harryhausen, David Lynch, Jim Henson, H. P. Lovecraft, H. R. Giger, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Ed Wood collaborated on a project after dropping a metric shit-ton of acid; that should give you at least some idea of what to expect from the tone and visual style of this cinematic fever dream. Tippett relentlessly assaults the viewer with surreal, abstract, haunting imagery: barren industrial wastelands and enigmatic ruins dripping with filth, entrails, and excrement—hellish monuments to decay, despair, and death. The minimalistic, episodic narrative is, of course, entirely allegorical—though I’ll be damned if I can discern any semblance of “meaning” after just one viewing. And to be honest… I have no real desire to fully comprehend it. Sometimes, attempting to interpret a work of art in concrete terms is akin to swimming against the current; in this case, I found it more enjoyable to simply go with the flow.
Code Name: Nagasaki - This intimate, innovative, genre-bending documentary chronicles a young Norwegian man’s efforts to reestablish a relationship with his Japanese mother twenty-seven years after she abandoned his family. Over the course of his journey, subject/co-director Marius Lunde, an actor by trade, inhabits a variety of roles and archetypes—including samurai, hard-boiled detective, demonic beast, and average salaryman—in a series of stylized, dramatic vignettes intended to symbolize his turbulent emotional state. This intricate interplay between “truth” and “fiction”—utilizing the artificiality of familiar cinematic tropes as a means of confronting very real trauma—elegantly ties into the film’s underlying themes. Lunde’s desire for parental affection is, after all, merely a small facet of his search for his own identity; he frequently muses that he feels like a stranger in his mother’s homeland, surrounded by people that superficially resemble him, but with whom he shares little of substance in common. Beneath its deeply personal narrative, Code Name: Nagasaki challenges the viewer to contemplate what ultimately defines a human being (Culture? Ethnicity? DNA?)—an existential conundrum that propels the movie into the realm of the universal.
Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes: From the surprisingly delightful One Cut of the Dead to the irredeemably disappointing Crazy Samurai: 400 vs. 1, Japanese cinema has become increasingly obsessed with 1917-esque “continuous shots” (or reasonable imitations thereof) in recent years. Although this sci-fi flavored comedy isn’t the best use of the notoriously flamboyant technique, it definitely ranks among the most clever, due to how seamlessly it marries craft and content—because the story revolves around “time travel,” it’s only logical to allow the plot to unfold in “real time.” The novel premise—a mild-mannered café owner discovers that he can communicate with his future self via an inverted two-minute video delay between his computer and television set, but must then perfectly reenact every predetermined conversation from the other side of the loop in order to avoid creating a temporal paradox (an unexpectedly complex meditation on the nature of fatalism and inevitability, considering the otherwise lighthearted tone)—lends itself to both humor and suspense, while the deliberately modest production values (a single location, iPhone cinematography, available lighting) prevent the filmmakers from letting their ambitions exceed their budget. Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes is the first feature-length movie produced by the Europe Kikaku theatre group; after such an impressive debut, I’ll be watching their careers with great interest.
Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist - On August 24, 2010, acclaimed animator Satoshi Kon died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 46, leaving his final film, Dreaming Machine, incomplete and unreleased. As tempting as it may be to mourn the loss of another potential masterpiece, however, this documentary instead chooses to celebrate the legacy that the director did leave behind, outlining his entire career through talking-head interviews with his colleagues, peers, and the generation of artists that he influenced. And unlike similar “celebrity profile” films—say, for instance, Mifune: The Last Samurai—it isn’t afraid to acknowledge its subject’s flaws and blemishes; several of Kon’s former coworkers, for example, admit that although he encouraged creativity and experimentation, his perfectionism and uncompromising vision often alienated his staff—a common trait among “geniuses” and “auteurs.” All in all, Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist is a lovely tribute—albeit one that’s occasionally guilty of preaching to the converted.