Reviews From Another Hole In The Head Film Festival 20

by on December 4, 2023

What do you call the cinematic collision of Jean Cocteau’s “Orpheus,” Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There,” and a low-budget adaptation of a Robert E. Howard sword and sorcery tale?  In more than a few hands, the results would be an embarrassing mess.  Fortunately for director Bertrand Mandico, what the viewers get is the fascinating “She Is Conann.”  Mandico’s film brings to the genre something more than accounts of the accumulation of the next treasure or an encounter with yet another evil mage.  Its queer take turns the familiar barbarian action story into a decades-spanning psychodrama, with time travel and strange car sex to provide added dramatic flavor.

“She Is Conann” might be called a biography told in gore and impalings.  Its titular character is followed through the stages of her life from sickly slave to stuntwoman lover to woman of wealth and power.  Acting as guide and frenemy in Conann’s life is the humanoid dog Rainer.  He’s the catalyst to spur Conann’s transition to the next stage of her life, whether it’s suggesting making use of a poisonous plant or offering a multi-page contract to travel to New York City’s the Bronx in the future of 1998 A.D.

The use of different actresses to play the film’s title character is more than just a director’s affectation.  The allure of the sword and sorcery genre is audience identification with a character whose id has been unleashed from the compromises mundanes need to exist among civilized people.  By having Conann portrayed by different actresses (including one who is Black), the viewer is constantly challenged to renegotiate their feelings towards Conann as a person.

However, Mandico does deserve a verbal knuckle rap for feeding into a couple of negative stereotypes.  Having the Black actress play Conann as a stuntwoman lover evokes stereotypes of Black female hypersexuality.  The violent demises of both of Conann’s lesbian lovers will earn side-eye from some lesbian viewers for feeding into the “bury your gays” trope.

The rough decade of each stage of Conann’s life are visually rendered in a liminal space between underground theater and underground film.  More than a few of the film’s scenes consist of an artfully dressed wall here or a use of vomited stage blood there, something simple which can be recreated on stage.  Yet other sequences such as an afterlife rendered as a flooded misty piazza or an incredibly grotesque sous chef working area could only be rendered on film.

“She Is Conann” also successfully occupies two other liminal spaces.  The first is between straightforward narrative and symbolism.  The early parts of the film start out as a straightforward revenge tale.  The later parts of the film goes for symbolic commentary such as the images of the bankers swimming in a pool of blood or cannibalism used as a medium for obtaining wealth.  The second space is between past and present.  Aside from being told that Conann’s story starts in an age of barbarians, the viewer knows little else about the setting.  Yet it’s a past in which Rainer’s use of an instant flash camera is accepted as normal.  The present gets a little more defined in terms of the arts and the use of a cell phone.  Yet there’s a vagueness about the nations or institutions Conann owes loyalty to outside of herself.

Violence as the spark that allows Conann to move into a new phase of her life is about more than just gratuitously spilling blood.  The act is in keeping with who Conann is at the core: a barbarian.  But what’s consistent about the barbarian’s demises is the symbolic meaning of her deaths.  From death as a symbol of maturity to death as the triumph of old age, Freud might have said of Conann’s various terminations that it’s a case where death is more than a state of no longer living.

In following Conann’s colorful life, Mandico’s film ultimately argues against assuming that barbarian behavior is merely a peculiar behavioral quirk of less enlightened times.  After all, the film’s protagonist engages in her cruelest and most ruthless actions at the behest of modern day bankers and scientists.

***

Derek Barnes’ man vs. nature adventure “Walking Supply” centers its story on the sort of protagonist who usually winds up dying in the first half hour of other stories in this genre.  How this unlikely protagonist manages to survive to the last reel turns out to be the movie’s main point of interest.

Henry Rutherford is the name of this highly unlikely survivor.  Minutes into meeting him, the viewer senses that Rutherford is overweight and badly out of shape.  Those two qualities mean Rutherford is seriously unlikely to survive the Russian gulag where he and his equally physically unfit office mates have been taken after being kidnapped from their St. Petersburg offices.  However, when possible ex-soldiers Kurt and Anthony mount a semi-successful escape attempt, Rutherford reluctantly accompanies the duo.  But Kurt and Anthony have decidedly non-altruistic reasons for keeping Henry alive.

A sharp-eyed viewer will figure out long before Rutherford does why Kurt and Anthony are so concerned for his health and well-being.  It certainly isn’t for Rutherford’s survival skills, which are painfully non-existent.  And in fact, the film’s unusual title gives a clue regarding Kurt and Anthony’s ultimate plans for Rutherford.

What few surprises Barnes’ film offers comes from its occasionally reminding the viewer just how deadly the process of surviving the wilderness can be.  Then again, that point has already been made in earlier and better films than this one.

***

“Love Will Tear Us Apart” director Kenichi Ugana must not have gotten the memo about generally avoiding using titles with heavy cultural baggage for their own creations.  Unless the artist can bring their own indelible spin to the title, they’re essentially stealing the goodwill and powerful associations that made the original title famous.  It’s like Ed Sheeran & Anne-Marie’s cover of The Pogues classic “Fairtytale Of New York.”  The value of dropping the homophobic slur from the original is badly outweighed by the duo’s turning a powerful holiday song of broken dreams and life disappointments into something nice that could be played on easy listening radio station KOIT.

In Ugana’s case, his film lacks much of the psychodrama that made the similarly named Joy Division song memorable.  Only when it leans into that psychodrama with such things as a memorable third act tattoo does the film reach a level of jaw-dropping crazy that would have made this film live up to its promise of being a slasher film version of Ian Curtis’ classic song.

Then again, the best parts of Ugana’s film are the scenes where the practical effects personnel are allowed to get visually crazy.  One spectacular disposition of the corpse, which will not be spoiled here, generates one of this Another Hole In The Head Film Festival’s most memorable images.  More sensitive viewers may wish they could unsee that same image.

Ugana’s film might be classified by the unobservant as a misandrist’s paradise.  Most of the male characters here are unredeemable sexist creeps to greater or lesser degree.  They generally meet spectacularly bloody ends over the course of the movie.  The trouble is, the major female characters don’t become empowered as a counterbalance to the sexist world they exist in.  Main character Wakaba’s mother disappears without explanation later in the film.  So the viewer has no idea whether she died or she finally had enough of her husband’s verbal abuse.  If the latter, there’s no explanation why she doesn’t take Wakaba with her.  Nor does Wakaba’s later undergoing physical training to take down a serial killer count as empowerment.  She never displays enough fighting ability to become a credible threat.   It’s not surprising, given Wakaba’s self-defense “teacher” turns out to be a lecherous scam artist who just wants to get into her panties.

Wakaba’s story is that of the genre staple of “young woman who’s an apparent magnet for violent death.”  But her character does relatively little to add to a film which seems to take greater joy in showcasing practical effects artistry than in making its lead heroine an emotionally complex character.

***

Jesse Thomas Cook’s “The Hyperborean” certainly has the makings of a comic matchup in pitting an experienced crisis manager against an otherworldly occurrence.  What sort of mundane lie could the manager craft to get ordinary people to turn away from the disturbing reality of an interdimensional encounter which left three people dead?

The incident, as viewers learn in flashback, centers on the wealthy Cameron family and their whiskey empire.  Patriarch Hollis Cameron wants to retire after putting together one last special whiskey release from a 30-barrel stash found on an arctic exploration ship left locked in the ice for 170 years.   However, the Cameron family’s dreams of future avarice collide with two embarrassing realities.  First, the whiskey in that nearly two centuries old stash tastes like garbage.  Second and more importantly, the Camerons accidentally revive an ice mummy which shoots “laser beams” at anybody foolish enough to attack it.

Dinbock, Hollis Cameron’s special crisis manager, isn’t exactly a slouch at his job.  One of his previous successes involved convincing the public that a male VIP caught in an apparently sexually compromising situation involving his wearing a large adult diaper was actually a man practicing an accredited form of alternative medicine.  His handling the severed leg of his former employer doesn’t stop him from heartily chomping on a large sandwich and swigging a can of soda.

Sadly, screenwriter Tony Burgess and/or director Cook then proceed to push their characters from Point A to Point D at the expense of not deepening either the Cameron clan or Dinbock.  Take what should be a major plot point that this nearly 200-year-old whiskey is worthless.  In the film, that information is conveyed in an off handed mention rather than (for starters) seeing the Cameron clan react to the taste of that old booze.  The consequences of that plot point for some of the characters don’t even merit consideration.  Shouldn’t Hollis Cameron be furiously trying to brainstorm ways to extract some value out of the situation given the business resources already sunk into this project?  Why isn’t Cameron son-in-law Ian either resentful or disappointed at what looks like the vanishing of an opportunity to personally shine in the Cameron family business?  For that matter, if Hollis’ personal healer Fontano was present when the truth about the old whiskey was discovered, why is he still interested in sneaking a taste of the bad booze?

Dinbock’s attempt to concoct reassuring lies in the face of an extraordinary reality which can’t be easily explained away winds up being badly handled.  There needed to have been more friction between daughter Diana’s blase “believe me or not, your call” attitude and Dinbock’s attempting to cling onto his understanding of how the universe operates.

Even the ice mummy turns out to be a boring disappointment.  The creature’s slow movement might be forgiven once the Camerons realize why it’s acting that way.  But the nature of the mummy’s eye beams seem to change with the demands of the plot.  One zap causes one impacted victim to sound as if he’s speaking through a vocoder.  The next moment the eye beams are death rays.

“The Hyperborean” can’t even bring itself to truly mock its generally dysfunctional characters.  The end result is a painful exercise in tedium.

***

A more memorably entertaining dysfunctional family serves as the emotional core of Mark H. Rapaport’s demented gonzo comedy “Hippo.”  Bland late 1990s to early 2000s American suburbia becomes a nest of quiet madness.

The film’s title happens to be the nickname of a teenager named Adam, who’s obsessed with video games and his mother Ethel’s cooking.  Adopted Hungarian teen sister Buttercup loves classical music and Catholicism, but also yearns to have a child despite knowing nothing about sexual intercourse.  Middle-aged Ethel’s homeschooling of her children has not included such touchy subjects as sex education.  She also dotes on Hippo and is generally happy to indulge her son’s whims.  Hippo’s mother does draw the line at getting her son an AR-15 for his birthday.

Ethel’s children wind up displaying some interesting behaviors regarding sexual matters.  Hippo refuses to date girls his age because he feels they’re whores or pedophiles.  His masturbatory pleasures come from using his toy hippo as a sex toy.  Buttercup’s ignorance of the taboos around incest leads to her considering having her stepbrother father her child..

Hippo’s rebuff sets the plot in motion as Buttercup winds up going to Craigslist to find a guy to make a baby with.  That search leads to one of the film’s best scenes, where Buttercup’s  trying to find a connection on Craigslist despite not understanding the meaning of such commonly used acronyms in the Connections ads as ISO or BBW.

Darwin, the guy Buttercup winds up contacting via Craigslist, unsurprisingly turns out to be a middle-aged creep.  Buttercup’s being underage isn’t a deterrent to Darwin’s determination to have sex with her.  The older man isn’t hesitant about mentioning a childhood turn-on was the feel of his nanny’s breasts against his back.  While Ethel may be charmed by Darwin, Hippo isn’t hesitant about showing his disdain for Darwin through such acts as playing his Game Boy in front of the older man rather than attempting even small talk with him.

Darwin’s visit for dinner winds up changing the lives of this small family in ways that will not be spoiled here.  Let it be said that one consequence is that Buttercup does indeed find a way to get pregnant.  But the details of how she accomplishes it will not sit well with those of a sensitive nature despite the tasteful way in which the act is presented.

Eric Roberts brings a wonderful sense of dry humor to his narration for this story.  Whether it’s noting the irony in Buttercup hating her name or letting the viewer see the inner world of the film’s protagonist, he winds up expanding and illuminating the unseen parts of this strange suburban family.

Beginning with an opening featuring Hippo’s crossbow practice with water balloons, the film hilariously uses classical music in a way that would probably cause the music’s composers to make frequent signs of the cross at what’s being shown on screen.  Then again, “Hippo”’s wonderfully off-kilter humor is a major reason why this strange little film is one of Another Hole In the Head’s best offerings.

 

(“Walking Supply” screens at 9:00 PM on December 6, 2023.  “Love Will Tear Us Apart” screens at 9:00 PM on December 5, 2023.  Both screenings take place at the Roxie Theater (3117-16th Street, SF).  “The Hyperborean” screens at 9:00 PM on December 11, 2023.  “Hippo” screens at 7:00 PM on December 12, 2023.  Both screenings take place at the 4-Star Theater (2200 Clement Street, SF).

(After their theatrical screenings, the films mentioned above will be available on the Another Hole In The Head streaming service until December 25, 2023.)

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment