Fantasy

Square Pegs

Square Pegs is Ben Hicks first film and a very solid start indeed. The film centres on a family – two sisters and their hopelessly immature mother – who stop at a roadside restaurant for lunch. Its immediately apparent, however, that this is no ordinary restaurant.

The elderly waiter appears to have an endless supply of dope – for his own use, of course – and as the girls watch the guests float by, the family is watched by one of the strangest chefs to find his way into a film. Visually, Square Pegs is a stunning film in which darkly oppressive set design and impressively gritty cinematography combine to capture the surreal fairy tale mood of the film.

The narrative centres on Alison (Brianna Weaver), the elder of the two sisters, who comes to understand what this restaurant really is as her family falls to pieces around her. The acting is solid throughout, and suitably over the top when it needs to be, but Weaver does a great job of both carrying the film and grounding it with enough humanity to keep the audience engaged.

The score also deserves a mention because, as the film starts to approach its climax, this takes on a creepily minimalistic edge that really is unnerving.

Square Pegs is very much an adult fairy tale and really does demonstrate what this surprisingly small genre is capable of. Its a film, rich in atmosphere, that has something to say about making choices and about understanding the consequences of those choices. As such, the film manages to be both thoughtful and disturbing, and well worth seeing.

Circulation

Circulation is certainly a strange film, so much so that I had to watch it twice to fully appreciate what was going on. However, since this is also a very well made film, the second viewing was very far from being a chore.

Set in Californian desert, the film centres on two main characters; Gene (Sherman Koltz) and Ana (Yvonne Delarosa). Ana is a Mexican woman on her way to visit her new boyfriend when her car breaks down. Unfortunately for Ana the first person to find her stranded is her ex-husband.

One attempted kidnapping later, Ana pulls herself from the wreckage of a car crash and meets Gene, a retired trucker who is heading south for a vacation. He agrees to give her a lift and they encounter the first of their problems – Ana speaks no English and Gene speaks no Spanish.

However, she manages to make herself understood and Gene agrees to take her to the hotel where she has arranged to meet her boyfriend. But when she arrives it is very far from what she expected. The hotel is not only deserted but derelict as well. When she encounters a man hiding in the abandoned building, and when the man growls at her, she flees the building with Gene.

What emerges as the film progresses, and as Ana and Gene try to understand what is happening to them, is that none of these characters is alive. They are trapped in Purgatory, but this is a strange, animal purgatory in which the dead are learning the instincts that they will need when they are reborn. Genes behaviour is becoming increasingly spider-like while Ana finds herself taking on the behaviour of caterpillar

Although Circulation is listed as a horror/fantasy film it really is a unique piece of cinema that defies any sort of easy genre classification.

The film progresses at a very steady pace and, instead of falling back on familiar genre tropes, relies on the performances from both the lead characters to draw you into their world and to keep you hooked. And they are very strong performances indeed.

Both Koltz and Delarosa do a great job of really bringing their characters to life as they navigate their way through the genuinely dreamlike world that writer/director Ryan Harper has created. And its these performances that really hold the film together.

Harper trusts the audience to not need spoon-feeding and this is an approach that I thoroughly appreciate. However, the surrealism of the film does mean that you are sometimes unsure of what is going on. When this happens, it is the depth of the characters that keeps you engaged, wanting to know how things will develop and willing to stay with the film as its events unfold.

This is probably the most idiosyncratic vision of an afterlife I have seen filmed, which is very much to the films credit. Circulation is a genuinely original film and one that really does reward repeated viewings.

Nightmare Detective

Nightmare Detective Over the years Shinya Tsukamoto has ranged across a variety of genres – from the mind bending SF of Tetsuo to the grimy eroticism of A Snake of June. Although both the genre and the plot can change from one film to the next, Tsukamoto’s consistent reworking of similar themes and his kinetic visual style gives his films a distinct auteurial stamp that is difficult to miss. While Nightmare Detective, his foray into the horror genre, may well be the director’s most accessible film to date, it is still very much a Shinya Tsukamoto film.

The film centres on Keiko (Hitomi), an up and coming detective investigating her first hands-on case – an apparent suicide. Although the senior detective is keen to treat it as an open and shut case, Keiko is less sure and wants to dig a little deeper. She is especially interested in “O” (Shinya Tsukamoto), the last person the suicide victim called.

Keiko’s investigations eventually lead her to seek the help of a tormrnted individual (Ryuhei Matsuda) with the unfortunate ability to enter other people’s dreams. As her pursuit of “O” becomes increasingly out of control, she finds herself forced to face own deepest fears and weaknesses.

Although marketed as a horror film, Nightmare Detective plays out more as a cross between a police procedural and a supernatural thriller. That said, the film does maintain an effectively eerie atmosphere throughout, often by acknowledging – and then subtly inverting – many of the tropes that have become familiar with the recent rise of Japanese horror.

And when the film takes a turn for the horrific, it becomes very horrific indeed. Tsukamotos frenetic editing of these scenes manages to keep you off balance but is accomplished enough to ensure that you understand as much as the director wants you to understand of what is going on.

The films use of colour and lighting to accentuate the mood and themes covered fit this very firmly into the directors filmography, as does the attention to character. The characters here are all adults and very well drawn and really do engage you fully with the film.

This is helped by the fact that acting is both solid and believable throughout, with Hitomi especially putting in a sterling performance in this, her first lead role.

With Nightmare Detective, Tsukamoto has merged popular concerns with internet suicide pacts with his own themes of alienation, despair and a loss of humanity. The result is a darkly ambitious film that manages to be genuinely chilling.

The Three Trials

Writer/director Randy Greif certainly has a very unique vision, as is amply demonstrated in The Three Trials, the story of Catherine (Molinee Green), a nun with a unique form of narcolepsy.

Catherines troubles start when she stumbles across the priest of her church (Michael Q. Schmidt) indulging in fetish sex with the convents dominatrix Mother Superior (Sirena Scott). Aroused and in trouble, her troubles start when she is sent to the wonderfully grimy basement of a nearby cathedral to face the first of her trials.

The film starts very firmly in nunsploitation territory, but quickly takes a very surreal turn and becomes much, much more as Catherine is forced to confront and accept her sexuality.

Moving beyond the religious life, by way of a montage that reflects both the reality of her secular life and the submissive fantasies that are now – and maybe always were – a part of her being, Catherine finds herself living in Blackhearts Castle.

In terms of narrative, this is the most explicitly dream-like part of the film. No attempt is made to explain how she arrived here, or even where here is – and, as such, it works more as a fantasy, and a deliberately adolescent one at that. Catherine the nymph, like Catherine the nun, has a deep desire for devotion but this time around the desire is more romantic than religious.

Although the narrative here is the most dream-like, the imagery in this part of the film is the least. And Greif does manage to come up with some very striking imagery that does manage to very effectively convey the eroticism of Catherines personality. The imagery is also often quite erotic in its own right.

It also has to be noted that, regardless of the description of the synopsis so far, the film does not follow a linear narrative. It is divided into three broad sections, each of which deals with a different aspect of Catherines submissive sexuality. But, as with both personality and sexuality, these aspects do impinge on each other and – consequently – the events in the three sections do refer, backwards and forwards, to each other.

The end of the second section of the film sees Catherine being rescued by Beast (Maximilien Herholz), a sasquatch-like creature who, by the beginning of the final section, has become a man. And, as this man is more than happy to accommodate Catherines desires, we see her relationship with him becoming increasingly extreme and masochistic.

More than anything, this part of the film made me think of The Story of O and really does capture the same sense of utter submission that is portrayed in the novel. And, as with O, Catherines journey is one that follows an unrelenting logic of its own and one that is engaging, erotic and more than a little disturbing.

Where The Three Trials is unique, however, is in Greifs use of a surreal and genuinely dream-like approach to narrative, along with some deliberately absurdist elements, to obscure the boundaries between reality and fantasy. And, although the imagery does become a little self-indulgent at times, it does come together to generate a very striking, and very memorable, visual experience.

This is a film that doesnt sit comfortably in any genre but one that very effectively pulls together elements from a variety of influences to create something that both unique and very powerful indeed.

MirrorMask

Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman are two of the most original people working in graphic fiction (or comics, if you weren’t around in the 1980s) and their first cinematic collaboration certainly displays a huge amount of visual inventiveness. Unfortunately, neither the narrative nor the characters are quite large enough to fill the world that has been created.

The film centres on Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), a 15 year old performer in a family of circus entertainers who – inevitably - she could run off and join the real world. As the film starts, Helena is picking a fight with her mother (Gina McKee) over her future plans and shortly afterwards her mother collapses, leaving Helena feeling inevitably guilty.

Surgery is required and, on the eve of her mother’s operation, Helena dreams that she is in a strange world, divided between light and dark, in which everyone is a performer. All is not well in this world, however. A charm has been stolen from the Queen of Light (Gina McKee again), sending her into a coma and allowing the Queen of Shadows (Gina McKee) to extend her influence, putting the world out of balance.

Helena takes on the role of heroine and, with the aid of Valentine (Jason Barry), sets out to recover the charm. But, as she travels through this world, she begins to wonder whether she really is in a dream, or whether something far more sinister is happening.

With the Jim Henson company providing a menagerie of strange and fantastic perfectly matching Dave McKeans hauntingly surreal visual sense, MirrorMask is certainly gorgeous to look at. Unfortunately, its also a remarkably unengaging film largely, I think, because of the main character.

We are supposed to buy into Helena as someone frustrated by the fact that she doesnt live a normal life but, from what we see, her life is really rather normal. She has a stable family, a home to go to and essentially good people around her, all of which makes it very difficult to sympathise with her.

MirrorMask Is stunning to look at but ultimately suffers from not being sure what sort of film it wants to be. The result is a piece of cinema that has neither the subtlety to appeal to adults nor the excitement to appeal to teenagers.

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