Lambs to the Slaughter: Viktor Kossakovskiy’s Gunda

This review contains mild spoilers.

Animals in cinema fall under three categories. First, we have the merely decorative ones — the cute pets that have sometimes grace the screen, sometimes with a tiny part to play. Then we have the more symbolic, or even heroic, in which an animal — usually a dog, or a horse — becomes an emblem for a larger scope if you go for greatness, or the stuffed birds in Psycho which portent not to a greater danger just about to happen, but segue into another film titled The Birds. We could also include, as a third category, the anthropomorphic creatures that since the dawn of animation — drawn and now, computerized — have told their own stories, which dimly reflect the human experience.

What Gunda offers is something completely different, Zoning in ever so slowly to the barn where she lives, we don’t get to see her proper until we are about five or so minutes of an extremely slow zoom-in. Lying on the ground, she seems to be in some pain. We soon realize why. She’s currently in the end phases of giving birth to a dozen little piglets who are already squirming about trying to find her milk-engorged teats to begin feeding. Meanwhile, she lies on the ground, accepting, not really moving, barely making any noise at all. If anything, the only noises come from the piglets themselves, and while at first, they seem to be akin to the cries of newborn babies, later on, they will morph into the cries of hunger, play, and something completely unthinkable.

Gunda remains close to its protagonist, the camera practically right next to her and her piglets as they all move as one body throughout the confines of the barn and then venture out into the farm. Along the way, the omnipresent camera, while tracking her movements, also tracks that of a trio of chickens recently let out of a coop, and focuses on one who is missing a leg. Then the camera tracks Gunda who has approached what seems to be a cow farm. One majestic shot gives these animals a sense of grandiosity only afforded to scenes of horses during a stampede. To see a group of cows emerge and tear through the fields into the woods, sometimes skipping, as their bells clang, is truly an epic experience.

But then, Kossalovskiy’s camera does what little movies do: focus on not just the animal in question but on their faces. While it is possible that some people may wonder what is the purpose for this, it gave me a sense of identification if you will. Watching an animal who seems to be alert, watching me, as it continues to move about, is a bit unsettling, particularly when you realize later where Gunda is headed, and how complicit you are in its own thread.

It slowly becomes apparent that because Gunda transpires within the confines of a farm that these animals, as cute as they are, are completely under the control of their unseen humans. This becomes clear when Gunda herself while venturing a bit too far from her home, comes across an electric fence, We don’t see it; she doesn’t, either, and her squeal of surprise and pain is piercing.

The reality of these animals couldn’t be more present when focusing on the piglets, a thing which Kossalovskiy’s camera does, and often. At first, the suspense hinges on their mother’s enormous body. The babies are so small, so fragile, that one slight movement from her could mean the difference between life and death. Every time the camera, after cavorting with the chickens and cows, returns to Gunda and her babies, they seem to have grown. First, it looks like a week, then months. Suddenly, they have what seem to be personalities all their own. A scene in which two piglets taste the rain with their mouths is something out of magic. I couldn’t get it out of my head for a while.

Of course, something indescribably awful cracks the serenity of the entire montage, and then I feel the rug being pulled from under my feet. All this time, a false sense of security has been planted within the meandering narrative. The camera, which has stayed so close to both Gunda but especially her little piglets, continues to do just that, now only delivering a growing sense of shock that is more effective from what we never see but hear. Those squeals from the moment of the piglets’ birth now come with terror, while Gunda can only run — yes, run — after the large tractor that has come. It is a gut-wrenching scene and stands right up there with the scene in Bambi.

This is a deceptive documentary. It arrives enfolded in the black and white beauty of pastoral images, slowly draws you into what seems to be the life of a pig, only to disclose the ugly magician at the center. You will not see anything else like it. I don’t think it will change the world, but at least, it has changed me.

Woman at war blends disparate styles to create an unclassifiable eco-thriller with a wink

Sometimes you say you’re going to watch a movie or read that new book, and you place it in your queue where it sits and sits and sits. That is the case of Woman at War, a 2018 film by Benedikt Erlingsson (and follow-up to his quirky debut Of Horses and Men from 2013) that follows Halla (the regal Halldora Geirharosdottir), a chorus teacher living in Reykjavik who unbeknownst to everyone who knows her, moonlights as an eco-terrorist (or eco-activist, pick your term; I’ll stick with the former and I’ll tell you why later). Intensely focused on preventing an aluminum factory that could potentially contaminate Reykjavik, she has no problem decimating drone cameras, power lines — heck, entire towers! — in order to render any further development dead in Iceland’s as-yet pristine waters.

Trouble arrives — as it would — from a few angles. First, a manhunt predictably ensues, but it is, if anything, predictable. Second, a letter of adoption from a Ukrainian agency now gives Halla the chance to adopt and raise a little girl of her own and thus, fulfilling her dreams of motherhood. While Halla continues to evade officers in sometimes truly daring ways, the urgency of her mission, now compounded by the urgency of her having to leave to Ukraine to fetch her daughter, pushes Hall against a crossroads.

Erlingsson refuses to give into genre conventions which make his movie a weird, but totally satisfying experience. His Woman at War is part-action, part character study, part surreal thriller that offers a unique but dry sense of humor and a clever, unobtrusive music score played by stand-ins both Icelandic and Ukrainian that serve as a Greek chorus and subtly impose a slight effect on Halla’s own character and the chronology of her movements. A touch of 40s screwball enters the movie in bringing in a twin sister also played. by Gerhardsdottir, and while at first it seems it might only be to grant a sense of surreality, the story reveals much more later on.

There seems to be a running commentary on how tourists – and most global travelers who may not look like the ideal race – get treated overseas. A minor character, Julio Castillo, played by the actor of the same name (who also had an observer-like character in Of Horses and Men), repeatedly gets assaulted by officers who continually (and ineffectually) identify him as a terrorist. Julio, who also often breaks the fourth wall, becomes every tourist or immigrant who invariably tends to receive the brunt of the law while its more privileged folk run rampant and create chaos (and let’s not romanticize Halla; she is an eco-terrorist, she just happens to be a nice one with noble motives). An almost symbolic exchange occurs late in the movie between Halla and Julio that Erlingsson leaves unresolved, but he makes his point.

Woman at War is available on DVD formats and Prime. See it before Jodie Foster Americanizes it and thus saps it from all its light, comedic touches.

The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do it, So I Sat Down and Watched it on HBO.

I often wonder why is it that when you have a movie that churns up a sequel, producers and creators alike feel the need to install a third (and, potentially, final) film in its universe. That’s not even including adjacent stories that might include some of the characters from the original plot thread, but you get the picture, even when the picture itself while looking great, feels like a complete let-down.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is the (aforementioned) third in the Conjuring universe (although the original spawned the Annabelle movies, because, money). As with the previous two, it focuses on yet another case of possession that the Warrens were involved in. Only that this time, the stakes are higher, because it involves a young man named Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor) on trial for the gruesome murder of his landlord, and the fact that Johnson claimed to have been under demonic possession at the time of the murder.

I liked the previous two movies which brought the Warrens in as strong co-starring characters attempting to solve a case because it focused more on the family trauma and forced the plot into the familiar territory of the haunted house trope (and in these movies, all the houses are enormous and claustrophobic as heck). Centering the story around them somewhat dilutes the overall theme. However, I can see where the producers were headed with the third (and again, hopefully final) installment.

It was only time before the couple known for cracking paranormal cases would, as shown in a scene in the first Conjuring in a vision of horror Lorraine Warren experiences, find themselves at the unwelcome end of a malevolent evil — the same evil they themselves were trying to stop in the first place. In a way, it’s a neat way to tie up ends and bring the horror home, to have the Warrens face their own Everest and (in a cheesy manner) reaffirm their own marriage vows.

On that basis, the movie succeeds. Where it doesn’t is in the inclusion of Satanic Panic into the plot, which arrives under the form of John Noble, who plays the predictable character who knows more than he should and exists solely for the purpose of explaining some backstory and delivering some foreboding nods that lean towards a “leave it alone, this is not your battle” type of advice. This is not saying that Noble doesn’t commit to a solid performance — he does, even when he has to deliver a convoluted and implausible explanation of what has happened. However, I’ve always been of the belief that the less one knows, even after investigation, the better. And then I recalled that both the previous two movies also leaned on a backstory.

For the most part, The Devil Made Me Do it is a good, handsome spectacle to watch. Director Michael Chaves establishes a reliable sense of suspense with solid camera work, particularly in the opening scene in which a boy (Julian Hillard) finds himself trying to hide from an unseen thing out to get him, and when Lorraine, using her abilities as an empath, dives deep into the mystery that is haunting Arne Johnson (and may be part of a larger plot).

Where it fails: While it’s okay to make references to other movies, to basically insert scenes that look like an exact replica is a bit lazy. When you can see one scene lifted clear off from The Exorcist, and another one from the book version of The Shining (which happens rather late in the book and was also used for Doctor Sleep), then the disappointment happens. Adding to that, The Devil Made Me Do It seems to have lost its original steam, its magic. Its existence is meant for those who are die-hard fans of the movie’s old-school, 70’s horror cinematic universe, and who can scare easily without much effort. If you want to see truly disturbing horror movies, and I mean stuff that will keep you up at night and question your own taste, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Grade: B

The Mortuary Collection represents the best in horror anthologies

Horror anthologies have always been a mixed bag. Think of it as when you stream your favorite artist’s latest CD and find that other than the big hits you may not really resonate with any of their other songs. There may be that obscure “B-side” (does that term even qualify anymore?) that might be a sleeper favorite, but after a listen, you’re done, and all you can recall are the obvious favorites.

The same can be said here. If I can recall a good horror anthology it would be Creepshow from 1982 (despite the critics who savaged it). True, it wasn’t exceptionally high quality but it delivered its scares in the way horror comics of old did (and I’m going way, way back to Weird Tales). The only other would be Trilogy of Terror, but for audiences today, its only scare would be realizing that Karen Black’s career, on the upswing in the mid-70s and peaking in Robert Altman’s Nashville, would grind to a crashing halt soon after where she would make bargain basement horror movies that went straight to video (or cable) and died a quick death. [Also, the movie itself is remarkably tame and campy, but that’s the beauty of it.]

The Mortuary Collection piqued my interest after seeing Chris Stuckmann’s video review on his YouTube channel. Had I not seen anything else, I would have completely bypassed it and moved on to the next batch of festival screenings.

Dear reader, I came into this movie with next to no expectations and came out of it pleasantly surprised. Ryan Spindell’s movie spins a cohesive link of four independent stories connected by a creepy, Lurch-like mortician of the name Montgomery Dark, who receives an application to a vacancy at the mortuary where he operates, surrounded by glorious, old school gloom. Each story is more gruesome than the next. One venture deep into the bowels of pure marital dysfunction that I thought was brilliant. However, there are a few twists along the way, one of them provided by a key character, who plays a significant part in the final tale that has strong shades of both Halloween and The Shining and concludes it in a masterstroke of depravity that had me at the edge of my seat.

Spindell clearly loves the horror genre. In a time when jump scares are the norm for most if not all of the major releases (and even some Indies are getting into it), he lets a scene build onto its own sense of dread. His look is that of an experienced director who knows how much to show and not show in a scene. It simply looks and feels like a living comic book in which you may be given a certain amount of information on one scene, but no more than the characters, which makes for an uneasy view. The fourth and final story is in itself a stand-out and probably would make a full feature-length movie on its own (it exists as a 22-minute short). This is where Spindell lets out all of the visual tricks, some worn, some unexpected, and pulls it all together for a bravura fight between the Final Girl and her stalker. [And can I say that I’ve never seen hair move that way in a movie — it looked almost drawn, the way he has Caitlin Custer move during her more violent scenes that feel lifted from both the aforementioned Halloween and The Shining.]

If I had one minor complaint — but I’m nitpicking — is the look of the periods in which the stories transpire. A sequence in the 60s doesn’t once evoke that era, and the third, which takes place in the 70s, feels like it has elements of other time pieces. However, this is so minor I shouldn’t even be addressing it, but it’s been a thorn on my side to see period pieces look half baked and only feel like a vague rendering of what it was like to live in a specific era.

And on an end note, Clancy Brown. I’ve no clue how this actor has somehow bypassed true fame and awards, but aside from being the sole marquee name on this movie, as an actor, he truly embodies his role down to the mannerisms and voice inflections of Montgomery Dark. Some of his movements had a slight whiff of what Fred Gwynne did as Herman Munster, but other than that, this is an actor who on voice alone drives and elevates this movie.

The Mortuary Collection is available on Prime.

Suffer the Little Children: Bad Tales (Favolacce)

The D’Innocenzo brothers tackle suburban life as a portrait of hell in their latest (and second) movie Bad Tales. [Their 2018 movie Boy’s Cry is available on IMDBTV.]

Focusing on three separate families, they immerse their movie with a sense of surreal dread right from the start. Featuring a voice-over from an unseen narrator (Max Tortora), they seem to give the impression that the events of their movie transpired in the past, and the unseen someone is simply telling his memories. However, it turns out, the events that unfold come from a little girl’s diary… but these events are all false.

That already gets us into the mood of the movie, which is bleak. Two families, the Rosas and the Placidos, live side by side on the outskirts of Rome. When Viola, the daughter of the Rosa family, does something apparently awful, off-screen, her hair gets cut, and she spends the rest of the movie in a depressed funk wearing an oversized black wig, Dennis and Alessia Placido (Giulietta Rebeggiani and Tommaso di Cola) are a brother and sister who are forced to read their report cards in which they reveal they’ve gotten straight A’s except for one. Their father (Elio Germano), ostensibly the most violent of the two fathers, has installed an elevated swimming pool. In an irrational moment, because the Rosas were using it, he destroys it only to blame gypsies for the act.

We segue to the third thread in the movie. Geremia Guerrini (Justin Korovkin) and his father Amelio Guerrini (Gabriel Montesi) live in what seems abject poverty, but seem to enjoy a relationship. However, it seems there is no mother figure here, and Amelio seems to have no real means to support his son. Going even further into dysfunction, Amelio also seems like an overgrown kid himself with sex on his mind (and is trying to get Geremia to have his first sexual experience).

Woven into the story, which is already brimming with something awful about to happen due to the lack of communication between parents and children and an undercurrent of rage just hiding underneath all three of the fathers, is the threat of disaster just waiting to happen. A young woman floats into the picture. Contrary to the carnal fantasies in Fellini’s movies, she is its antithesis, a peroxide blonde with a look of hate on her face and a body about to blow because she is with child. One of the boys takes notice and repeatedly hits on her. Meanwhile, a teacher gives out some very disturbing classes to his students, who are, in turn, creating artifacts of obliteration… and that’s not the worst of it.

Bad Tales could easily be an American horror story of the quintessential family (and neighborhood) gone to rot from the inside out. The D’Innocenzo brothers keep most of their story under never-ending pressure — it seems that all this unspoken, unresolved tension that is eating away at their families must at one point get acknowledged. They make it near impossible with the presence of patriarchy rooted in the past, in which fathers were demanding monsters and mothers had no say in the house — or were simply absent. If the final act seems too brutal, that is because that is how a story like this would resolve itself. When there are no signs of communication and all attempts at logic fly out the window through acts of perpetuated violence, the only way out is, well, out.

Under the Radar: Gelateria

British humor is something that you can either totally get into, or completely negate as a comedic expression stemming from a situation that is completely bonkers and most likely has no clear, logical solution. In Christian Seritiello’s and Arthur Patching’s surreal comedy Gelateria, the story of an artist on the trail of her artwork — the centerpiece of their movie — gets introduced by a series of vignettes that seemingly have no relation to one another. However, if you step back and pay attention, you will see how there is a thread that forms a larger, albeit wonky whole.

Even if I chose to go frame by frame I still wouldn’t be able to give much in the way of spoilers. Gelateria begins with a man screaming out to sea, only that his voice gets muted and in its place, crashing piano keys. It then throws you into what has to be the convoluted mind of Zbigniew (Serritiello) who seems to spend the movie trapped symbolically in a non-moving relationship that somehow has taken the form of a non-moving locomotive. He wanders in and out of locations, either as himself into a jazz club where he gets relentlessly hazed by a singer who looks a bit like The Weeknd, as an outsider looking into a barbershop that has its own weirdness going on, and as merely a background picture in an art gallery that hosts the most unusual of (mostly failed) art and performers.

In the interim there are tangents — some a striking, some simply become incursions into bizarre observations on how we treat others — particular foreigners. The piece de resistance arrives almost by accident and requires an introduction, which happens via animation. We then get thrown back into the action with both Serritiello and Patching alternating the role of the unnamed artist who takes off into the unknown to retrieve her art. Her story goes completely off the rails. However, it does deliver a clever, self-referential wink of a pause that shows her, in the middle of a chase scene, re-applying lipstick. [Hey, a lady has priorities.]

If you’re reading this and it still makes little sense you’re in luck: it doesn’t, and it’s totally fun. I have to confess, I haven’t seen a movie quite like this in some time. The closest I can come to compare it to is to the early Monty Python skits and I do so reluctantly because I liked this movie on its own level of zaniness. Gelateria is its own lucid nightmare that makes you laugh, but nervously. On the surface, this movie arrives with an awkwardness closer to the comedy of discomfort. As its collage barrels along the entire piece morphs into something darker, sinister. I laughed because and despite its absurdity. In one scene a translator gets used for no purpose at all. In another. the artist in search of her missing body of work finds herself in a wake in which a woman drank herself to death, and now her mourners (and the dead woman) demand that she herself take a drink.

This is a striking debut feature film that transcends any linear narrative in lieu of presenting what seems to be its own internal logic and uses both its directors as substitutes for everymen (or everywomen). If this movie ever gets to see an American release, I hope that it will be through a prestigious film festival like New York Film Festival or next year’s New Directors – New Films where it would be completely at home.

Gelateria has been screened in various European film festivals to include Kinolikbez International Film Festival in Russia, Salerno Film Festival in Italy, and Mostra Internazionale di Cinema di Genova, also in Italy. A big thank you to director Serritiello for forwarding me his and Patching’s film. Please bring it to New York.

on Netflix: Special, Seasons 1 & 2

Given the sheer volume of TV shows that are out there demanding my attention while I gorge my eyes on movies with a zeal that would make Lucille Ball’s chocolate-eating clown blush, it’s almost a miracle that I managed to catch a little show called Special. Special came recommended to me cautiously by friends who know I have a low tolerance for idiot television and shows that eventually morph into bloated, unrelatable behemoths that overstay their welcome and still try to squeeze out every drop from its cache of stories by making tie-in movies and spin-offs because that seems to be the only way out of a creative rut. Checking the run time of each of Season 1’s episodes (on average, 15 minutes), I decided to give it a go and see what the fuss was.

Well, reader, I stand corrected. Let me put it to you this way: I didn’t just binge-watch the first season in one massive gulp but went into the second (and, to date, last) season of Special. I said to myself, here was a show that got it. While it might be based on Ryan O’Connell’s life, it also portrayed a young thirty-something in a manner I could have never anticipated in the days of Will and Grace or even the over-sexed Queer as Folk (I’m going quite a ways back, people.). Special gives you not a ravishing gay man who looks airbrushed to death and is played by an actor who can’t play a mannequin (which would be a stretch for the pretty), but a super-cute gay guy who just happens to have cerebral palsy.

The CP part gets downplayed early in the show’s first season as Ryan (Ryan O’Connell), just employed by the online blog eggwoke, informs his nightmare boss Olivia (Marla Mindelle, an actress trapped in a one-note, viciously stereotypical role) that his limp is the result of an automobile accident that left him this way. Olivia flat-out pretends to sympathize but exploits Ryan’s “accident” for page views.

In the interim, Ryan navigates his attempts at becoming independent from his over-protective mother Karen (Jessica Hecht, criminally underrated) who is also going through her own issues of being an older woman who meets an attractive neighbor (Patrick Fabian) while navigating taking care of Ryan and tending to her own demanding, senile mother in a story arc that mirrors into itself. The show’s 15-minute length is perfect to give us a snapshot into Ryan’s life as a newly independent millennial: in one episode, a housewarming party that would have involved his “friends” morphs into a poignant get-together with recent BFF Kim (Punam Patel, who is a stand out in this show). In another episode, Ryan has a rather tender moment with an escort (Brian Jordan Alvarez) who Ryan has contacted to help him lose his virginity.

It probably is inevitable that Special veers into soap territory, but never fully goes there. It is possible that the only way to develop Ryan and Karen’s codependent relationship was to add a few monkey-wrenches that would eventually bring the two to a clash, but the narrative actually deepens what could have been a rather superficial show. That storyline will get played out during season 2 which expands its episodes’ runtime to almost 25 minutes and fleshes out Kim’s character to be not just the sidekick but a fully-developed Indian-American woman going through financial hardships and the pressures of being/looking successful in a world that would demand she look flawless (and white, and thin).

If the show lacks some depth it’s essentially in Ryan’s workplace. Everyone in eggwoke seems to be a cartoon. A tangential character, Samantha (Gina Marie Hughes) has a voice so squeaky and a demeanor that makes her resemble something out of Salad Fingers — sad, with a trembling appearance and huge eyes. Olivia… well. The show thinks that having her creates some kind of contrast in her rampant, outlandish sociopathy, and perhaps at one or two appearances she would have been enough, but she is in almost every episode, and her presence snuffs the light out of what is an outstanding show that loves its main characters.

What I admire the most of Special is Ryan himself. O’Connell has written him not as a put-upon millennial trying to make it in the writing world but as someone who can be petty, self-centered, and even a bit flakey. He’s so bulldozed into getting his independence that he completely obliterates his mother’s importance — although, in his defense, Karen, who has not had a life of her own since she can remember, has projected everything onto Ryan in such a way that a separation would be inevitable. I loved that she also gets to have quite the storyline later in Season 2 as her character somewhat resolves a romantic situation and eventually comes to grips with her own mortality through the death of a loved one. Hecht truly lets her character breathe out in the moments she gets to explore her inner pain, and this gives Special much-needed depth.

I hope that O’Connell can negotiate a third season. It seemed that come Season 2 Special was getting into its groove of discomfort, with Ryan falling in love with a guy (Max Jenkins) who happens to be involved with someone else, and then flirts with another (Buck Andrews) who is also comfortable in being gender non-conforming and also is autistic. However, if two seasons is all there is, then so be it; this is an excellent show with a great cast that finally gives me characters I want to see more of on TV.