The movie opens very promisingly, with an owl… then things get nuts real fast. A team of knights are led by a Gilliam-looking toadie to a cave full of witches – innocent-looking, but supposedly cursed by the cross-shaped mark under their feet. All-out massacre ensues, beheadings from Knight-POV, the camera inside their helmets with cross-shaped viewports, as a Philip Glass tune plays. After stumbling across Soavi last SHOCKtober with The Sect, I was right to check out his other work, though are all his movies about basement-dwelling satanic cults?

Soavi worked with Gilliam on Baron Munchausen the year before this:

Flash-forward a few hundred years, it’s the first day for church librarian Tomas Arana (a cook on the Red October the following year). He’s almost hit by stuff falling off an art restoration scaffold (shades of Don’t Look Now), later makes out with the artist Barbara Cupisti (Argento’s Opera), then finds an ancient parchment and imagines it could be the secret to a lost science that could turn him into a god – not bad for a first day! Genius codebreaker Tomas figures out that the ancient runes are just mirror-writing, sneaks into the church at night and unleashes demons. These crazy demonic effects scenes are where Soavi’s movies really excel, laying all other late-80’s movie demons to waste, and with his crazed angles and quick, precise camera moves, it feels like Sam Raimi must’ve been a fan.

Back to the plot, Tomas is now obviously possessed and creeping on 13-year-old Asia Argento, daughter of the churchwarden, who sneaks out to discos at night. Her dad Roberto Corbiletto (Fellini’s Voice of the Moon the next year) has also lost his mind, suicides by jackhammer on the cursed cornerstone in front of horrified priest Hugh Quarshie (Nightbreed), his blood setting an ancient rube goldberg into motion, locking everyone including a wedding-photo party and a class of kids inside the church.

Asia wearing Eastern Europe:

I can’t tell what old bishop Feodor Chaliapin (Inferno) is up to – he understands what’s happening, but doesn’t appear to be helping. Meanwhile, innocents are being abducted by caped demons or eaten by giant lizards, a woman cheerfully beheads her husband, and another escapes into subway tunnels only to get mooshed by a train.

Enraged Corbiletto:

Father Corbiletto is alive again, I guess, and has gone fully mental, kills the schoolteacher in a rage – none of the kids seem to notice, since they are in the pews bonding over Nietzsche quotes (seriously). The restoration artist is raped by a goat-devil. Fortunately, Asia remembers the opening scene from a millennium before she was born, and tells Priest Hugh that if he pulls the murder-dildo from the skull of the church architect in a basement crypt, the whole church will collapse, killing everyone and ending the curse. As the bodies of the damned rise in a giant mud-dripping mass, he triggers the ancient self-destruct sequence as Asia escapes.

The good content you crave:

The dubbing is appalling, but the music (by Glass, Keith Emerson, and Goblin) is very good – demons whisper from the soundtrack, a welcome relief from the screaming strings of the netflix movies. Filmed in Hungary, since it was hard to find any churches willing to let them shoot all this satanic shit. Originally posited as Demons 3, then rewritten when Soavi came aboard – Cannibal Ferox auteur Umberto Lenzi would finally crank out a third Demons a couple years later.

I followed along for a while, as this arthouse mystery quickly turned into a twisty goofball survival thriller, until I started getting flashbacks to The Catechism Cataclysm, and then I was really too distracted to take anything that happens seriously. I think I’m missing religious aspects, since the letterboxd summary mentions the stations of the cross. Of course, as usually happens, I read some articles and interviews afterwards and came to appreciate the movie more.

Ornithologist Fernando (“the body of Jason Statham lookalike Paul Hamy, the voice of director João Pedro Rodrigues,” per Mark Peranson) is cataloguing the storks and vultures along a river when some rapids catch him off-guard and his kayak crashes. He’s rescued by travelers Fei and Lin, who are following a pilgrim path to Santiago, making me realize I forgot to watch the short Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day, which may be related, but then they tie him up and threaten to castrate him, so maybe not. Fernando escapes but loses his medication, and we don’t know what it was for, or if any part of the movie turns out to be hallucinated from lack of meds. He runs into some ritual partiers and gets peed on by one of them, makes out with (and murders) a deaf-mute sheepherder named Jesus, rescues a dove at a shrine, cuts off his own fingerprints, gets shot by topless woman hunters, and awakens as Antonio, then is then murdered by Jesus’s twin brother Thomas.

Even if the whole thing felt somewhat goofy, I enjoyed the mystery of the killings and rebirths at the end, and the bird photography. Music is all quavering feedback. João Rui Guerra da Mata was a collaborator, and the only familiar element from their Last Time I Saw Macao was the use of still photographs. Won best director at Locarno, where it played with Hermia & Helena, By the Time It Gets Dark, The Challenge, The Human Surge and a bunch more that still haven’t opened here and probably never will. Oh yeah, look at that… you have to go back six years to find a Locarno movie that played theaters near me – it’s the festival of doomed distribution deals.

Peranson:

Rodrigues’ blasphemous exploration of the transformative process of religious awakening, through a serious of wild—at times sexual—adventures focusing on the pleasure and the pain of the body is a modern film, in line with Godard’s Hail Mary or Buñuel’s The Milky Way.

Sicinski:

The Ornithologist is as shapeless and picaresque as the conventional Lives of the Saints, forming a clothesline more than a narrative. Granted, when this concerns getting peed on and being hogtied and swinging with your junk hanging out, as is the case here, it feels a bit more dreamlike, which is probably what Rodrigues is going for. At the same time, The Ornithologist gets a bit tiresome in its relentless punishment of the nonbeliever.

Rodrigues:

I wanted to be an ornithologist when I was a kid … Cinema interrupted this, and in a way I replaced this love of watching and observing birds in the wild and being alone, although I never felt alone because I felt surrounded by nature and living creatures.

The short looked at a post-apocalyptic celebration of St. Anthony, while The Ornithologist looks at St. Anthony more directly … the film is always set in a place that has never changed since ancient times, in a natural world that hasn’t changed very much at all. Those rocks were there when St. Anthony was alive. When I was going to these unchanged places, I thought I was going back in time. It’s a landscape that belongs to all times and has no time.

“I am like a Spanish Conquistador. Recently, I’ve learned of untold riches hidden deep in the Americas.”

A strange idea, obsessing over the “this is a true story” opening titles of Fargo, putting a degraded VHS tape of that movie into the hands of an already disconnected-from-reality Japanese woman whose hobby is treasure hunting, and setting her loose in Minnesota. However this movie, which opens with those same Fargo titles, is at least loosely based on a true story of a Japanese woman found dead outside Fargo.

Judging from the blu-ray alternate scenes, it seems the Zellners are inclined towards absurd comedy but dialed it down for the feature, so we’re left with a character study of a nearly mute, mostly unsympathetic (she rips off everyone she comes across) woman with a singleminded need to find something that we know doesn’t exist: the briefcase of money a wounded Steve Buscemi buried in the snow on a roadside twenty years earlier. Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim, Norwegian Wood) is engrossing to watch, and it’s fun to see the Minnesotans vainly try to culturally connect with Kumiko (asking at a Chinese restaurant if anyone can translate Japanese, giving her a copy of Shogun, offering her a ride to the Mall of America). I appreciated the concept and performances but wasn’t feeling it overall.

Bedtime for Bunzo:

This pet store had an owl, a parrot and a monkey, and the combination of their sounds stunned my two birds into silence:


Black Something (2016, Zellner Bros.)

Found on Filmstruck: the directors’ new homage to Malle’s Black Moon. A short burst of weirdness, and the first thing I tried to watch on that site, so I can’t tell if the barking dogs sound was out-of-sync on purpose or if this is gonna be a problem. A girl picks flower petals, centipedes wriggle, plants drip with goo, and frilly collar-wearing dogs attack a bear.

One of those Totoro/Coraline stories where the kids move to a new place and discover wonders there…kind of… but also one of the kids is a mermaid-seal, and so was her mom, and the girl needs to recover the seal pelt her dad chucked into the ocean or else all the mythological creatures in the land will be turned to stone.

Triumph of animation and design, as foretold by The Secret of Kells. It’s Irish, so Brendan Gleeson is in it (as the dad). I loved it despite the fact that owls were the villains.

Big Hero 6 and How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Miniscule and Princess Kaguya took most of the awards this was nominated for. Admittedly it was a great year for animation, also with Boxtrolls and Cheatin’ and The Lego Movie but I’m surprised this didn’t get more love.

Heard this three-hour Russian movie fourteen years in the making was something incredible, and oh boy is it ever. Loooong roving black-and-white takes (with beyond-Russian Ark choreography), torrential rainfall, everything bleak and ugly but masterfully shot. Sounds like Bela Tarr, but it doesn’t feel like Bela Tarr. Tarr ultimately focuses on individuals, and this one seems more concerned with lovely filth.

There is a story, or a premise at least, but if you miss the first five minutes you’d be forgiven for never figuring that out. Don Rumata is from present-day Earth, one of a team of scientists sent to “another planet, about 800 years behind,” on which the Rennaisance never happened because dumb thugs murdered all the educated and artistic types. The intro is the last time any of this is mentioned – the rest follows Rumata as he wanders the horrors of this place, through filth and hunger and murder. There are other characters, and a bit of a plot – a Wikipedia summary of the source novel reveals that many of its characters and events were adapted in the film, but weren’t explained. I’m not an avid reader of Russian lit so probably won’t pick up the novel, but I’m excited to see there’s a 1990 film version which may be more comprehensible.

Story aside, this is both a slog of a plotless beast and a technical and tactile marvel. It seems postsynched since we only hear certain sounds among all the chaos, but if so it’s done quite well. Also: a hedgehog and much bird tossing (including owls).

C. Marsh:

Hard to Be a God, by design, is not a dynamic film. Its consistency is intended to be exhausting. Over time, like Rumata, we’d rather be anywhere else. .. German seems less interested in the science-fiction dimension of the source material than in the central idea it poses: the Renaissance was a fluke. Cruelty and brutality are the default modes of existence.

I’m happy that Marsh mentions Monty Python and the Holy Grail in his review, since it was on my mind as well.

Intriguing Russian and German titles mentioned in Olaf Möller’s Cinema Scope article:
Khrustalyov, My Car! (1988)
Workers’ Settlement (1965)
My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1982)
Es ist nicht leicht, ein Gott zu sein (1990)
Days of Eclipse (1988)
The Fall of Otrar (1991)
Until the End of the World (1991, the 5-hour version)
The Ugly Swans (2006)
Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (1979)
Lenin’s Guard (1965)

Pleins feux sur l’assassin (1961)

A pained old man in fancy garb staggers around before entering a secret room with his wind-up doll, and so dies top-billed Pierre Brasseur within five minutes. Soon his whole estranged family is summoned, and told that they’ll have to maintain his castle but can’t receive an inheritance for five years since the man’s body was never found. It is decided to turn the castle into a tourist attraction, using an electronic light & sound system to tell a ghost story. Meanwhile, all the (generally disrespectful) cousins and siblings and girlfriends and spouses are gradually turning up dead, leaving fewer in line for the inheritance.

Dead man in the walls:

Both movies feature a guy aiming a gun at his reflection:

Murder story full of unmemorable characters, a stock mystery with a less mysterious atmosphere than most of Franju’s non-mysteries, and my faded grey VHS tape defeating Franju’s usually deep shadows. Jean-Louis Trintignant (star of My Night at Maud’s) is our young protagonist, with his girlfriend who is not into the whole castle thing (Dany Saval of the Envy segment of The Seven Deadly Sins). I like how her car radio is tuned to the movie’s score, a sweeping, upbeat waltz. Gerard Buhr (of Bob Le Flambeur) dies first, then Philippe Leroy (fresh off his debut in Becker’s Le Trou) is killed in a jealous rage by Claude, husband of Jeanne (Pascale Audret of Phantom of Liberty), who later jumps from a tower in front of a paying audience (after being attacked by an owl!). An unseen evil manipulating people to their deaths using a microphone and sound system – someone has been watching Dr. Mabuse movies.

Marianne Koch (A Fistful of Dollars) is thrown from her horse but lives, helps unmask the killer/instigator as Jean Ozenne (Bunuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid). They get Jean Babilee (the great dancer of Duelle) to shoot Ozenne as he’s escaping, then we see Babilee attend the funeral so I guess that turned out okay. Same writers as Eyes Without a Face and cinematographer as Judex.

Thomas the Impostor (1964)

Don’t think I’ve ever seen a horse running with its hair on fire before. Thanks, Franju. A WWI movie based on Cocteau’s story of a blank-faced boy faking his way into the war. Thomas (Fabrice Rouleau, son of the actor who played the mysterious leprous baron in L’assassinat du Père Noël) uses the charmed name of his general “uncle” to ferry socialite nurse Emmanuelle Riva (star of Hiroshima Mon Amour) through barricades. Industrialist Jean Servais (the Stephanois of Rififi) wants to marry Riva, finds out the truth about Thomas.

Was less interesting in the second half, as Servais pulls strings to get Thomas an actual army position with Captain Roy (Cocteau regular Edouard Dermithe, hot young poet of Orpheus). A lot of strings are pulled in this movie, all to get unhelpful people closer to a war they should be avoiding. Roy gets a soldier killed through reckless flashlight use, reluctantly sends an eager Thomas on a mission that gets him shot, then Riva’s Thomas-smitten daughter kills herself. Slow, elegant camera – this would be worth seeing again if a better copy shows up.

Released two years after Cocteau’s death, supposedly inspired by his experiences as an ambulance driver during WWI.